A real stunner — and a stunning achievement for a first-time feature-film director named Rodd Rathjen — Buoyancy, the Australian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.
At age 14, Charka (Sarm Heng) chomps at the bit to escape his daily labor in Cambodian rice paddies under his father’s tyrannical command. Realizing that as a poor peasant he has no chance with the girls, and learning of paid work in Thailand, he runs away from home. When we meet him, he is a purposeful, even stubborn lad, possessed of a fiery drive. But, importantly, he is free. That changes the moment he steps aboard a Thai fishing vessel, a most miserable milieu, and off floats the boat with no way out for a cluster of slave-laborers but death. (That is not hyperbole.) In a narrative that is brutal, but that rewards its audience richly, we watch a wily boy survive — and become a man.
In less capable hands, the gruesome depiction of human trafficking in the scrap-fish industry (intended to feed the pets of Los Angeles), might be less effective. As it is, Buoyancy‘s deft film making (how did they shoot so fluidly on the high seas?), nuanced revelation of narrative and character, and pitch-perfect performances by a cast of neophyte actors, elevates this “cause” movie to a higher plane of a righteous endeavor.
Kudos to Mr. Rathjen et al for Buoyancy. I cannot get this indelible movie out of my mind.
Author Debra Levine is editor/publisher of arts•meme, the fine-arts blog she founded in 2008.