- Colin Fraser
FOUR STARS A young Cambodian seeks his fortune in Thailand but doesn't reckon on slave traders.
Sam Heng, Thanawut Kasro
DRAMA Foreign Language #BUOYANCY
When you next open a tin of tuna or fish-flavoured cat food, consider this: it’s estimated that around 200,000 people are captives of the fishing industry. And by captive, I mean slaves in the purist sense of the word. The insidious practice is most common in south-east Asia where the vast majority of fish products in your supermarket trolly originates. Set aside the basic evil that is slavery, given the high mortality rate of indentured fishermen it’s not unreasonable to say that fish = death.
That’s the backbone of this startling drama from Australian filmmaker Rod Rathjen who charts the story of 14 year old Chakra, a Cambodian farm-boy who seeks a brighter life in Thailand. He pays men to smuggle him across the border and find well-paid factory work. Instead they sell him and several others to a brutal fisherman who quickly puts his property to work scraping the sea-bed and sorting the catch. For their effort they get plain rice to eat, a hard deck on which to sleep and the continual threat of violence. Those who fight back are soon thrown overboard.
Not that the Australian government’s detention policies that leave asylum seekers to rot in overseas territories can, in any way, be sanctioned, Chakra’s plight does generate some sympathy for their stated desire to shut down those who trade in another’s misery. And it is unquestionably miserable, a suffering that feels like something from the 17th century, not something as fresh as the fish on your supermarket shelf.
BUOYANCY is not an easy watch but fortunately it is a rewarding one. Although the film becomes a gruelling ordeal from the moment Chakra boards the boat - one only made tolerable by knowing you or I will never endure such suffering - Rathjen ensures his story is more than a polemic about slave traders. There’s a deft narrative skill at play that teases out a coming-of-age adventure that also challenges our own moral position; can we cheer on an innocent kid who turns into a monster (albeit in self-defence), can the circumstances support the crime?
Factor in Rathgen’s accomplished direction, Michael Latham’s claustrophobic cinematography and exceptional performances by newcomer Sam Heng as Chakra and Thanawut Kasro as his horrifically evil captor, BUOYANCY is a provocative, visceral experience and easily one of the strongest Australian films in years.