Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week’s revenue-sharing title from distributor Kino Lorber happens to benefit Scarecrow Video itself. Stream it right here.
Here’s a movie that provides a useful test case for the sometimes-tricky distance between a movie’s intentions and its effects. Buoyancy takes on the subject of human trafficking, and does so with an impressive amount of detail and seriousness. It is easy to believe, as an end title suggests, that incidents from the film are based on real testimonies—at least in its general outline, if not the specific story we see here. And yet—well, we’ll get to that.
That story is about 14-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng), a Cambodian boy who travels illegally to Thailand in search of work. Told he must work off his fee for being smuggled across the border, Chakra is dumped aboard a Thai fishing boat as a crew member. It quickly becomes clear that he is likely doomed to long, and possibly permanent, slavery. That is, if he survives the brutal captain, Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro), who thinks nothing of dropping weary or rebellious workers off the side of the trawler.
Whatever its motivations as a docu-drama, Buoyancy also bears the unmistakable outline of a Jack London story; it’s an adventure film, if a grim one. Chakra flees his village because his father is working him too hard, and maybe because of a touch of wanderlust, too: “Everybody’s going somewhere, doing something,” he sighs, as he gazes at the road beyond the rice paddies. Rom Ran becomes the nightmare father figure familiar to countless seafaring yarns. He spots Chakra’s intelligence and guile, and recognizes a worthy apprentice; maybe he even sees that Chakra will be his undoing. The second half of the film turns into a suspenseful account of Chakra’s plan to extricate himself from this hell.
Australian writer-director Rodd Rathjen paces this well, and he’s cast an excellent kid in the lead role; Sarm Heng radiates the kind of watchful wariness this character needs. (He even looks a little like an older version of Fernando Ramos da Silva, the boy from Pixote, a movie that surely influenced this one.) Rathjen’s style is mostly blunt—even when he goes for a lyrical moment, like Chakra examining a crab, it reads a little forcefully as “this is a lyrical moment.” There’s a progression in Chakra’s character that gets tracked with his use of crude tools—first a piece of driftwood, then a large bone, both hauled up in the fishermen’s nets—that operate a little bit like the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Chakra seizes his weapon, understands its power, and seems to transform into an active player, no longer a slave. The only price he pays is a large part of his soul.
So, a powerful movie. My reservations have to do with how luridly it plays out. If the events in the movie are authentic, there is still something about piling them together to suit a single fictional story that begins to feel sensationalized, or at least manipulative. The cruelty of this world at times feels a little too easily put to use for the purpose of eliciting a reaction from the audience—a miscalculation in an otherwise strong film.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.