Kamis, 10 September 2020

‘Buoyancy’ Review: Enduring Horrors on the Sea, and Struggling to Survive - The New York Times

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The hollow-eyed man on the fishing boat calls the water “the sea of the dead.” It’s an apt name for this stretch of blue more properly known as the Gulf of Thailand. The water is usually calm in “Buoyancy,” save for the thrash of fish and the churn of the engine. There’s far more turbulence onboard, where the hollow-eyed man and a handful of others rise before the sun and work into the night, though work is too dignified a word to describe this hell.

“Buoyancy,” from the Australian writer-director Rodd Rathjen, is a vivid fiction about the real catastrophe of contemporary slavery. Its protagonist, Chakra (the affecting newcomer Sarm Heng), is a 14-year-old Cambodian boy and prisoner on that ship. There, without pay or freedom — or even the promise of liberation — he works alongside other enslaved men, both Cambodian and Burmese. In an undifferentiated blur of time, with little more sustaining them than rank water and white rice, they lower and raise nets, scooping up so-called forage fish (anchovy, herring, squid) that are preyed on by larger creatures.

Chakra’s story begins in Cambodia, where he works in the rice fields helping to support his sprawling family. It’s a grinding, mostly cheerless life — the first image in the movie is of him hauling a heavy sack — that’s punctuated by brief interludes of joy, including at a swimming hole that portends the waters that later engulfs him. Chakra doesn’t seem to go to school, and it’s unclear if he’s had much, or any, formal education. He’s an obedient child, but he’s also keenly aware that his life is unfair and blames his exploitation on his father, his first oppressor. This sense of injustice is itself a survival mechanism.

Seduced by the familiar promise of well-paying work abroad, Chakra runs away. Brokers soon waylay him and an older refugee, Kea (a sympathetic Mony Ros), and they’re transferred onto a Thai fishing boat run by Rom Ran (an outstanding Thanawut Kasro), a killer of souls. For Chakra, life onboard soon falls into a numbing routine defined by deprivations and miseries that range from small cruelties to acts of baroque sadism. Rathjen doesn’t flinch from brutality, which seems calculated to entertain the crew and keep the prisoners in line. But neither does he linger on it, and in the most gruesome scene, he cuts away to Chakra, so we watch the horror through him.

In some movies, the refusal to show violence can feel like an audience-soothing cop-out; alternatively, those that slobber over every sanguineous drop and spray can become hostage to their graphic display. The same holds true of villains. Yet despite Kasro’s powerful screen presence, Rom Ran never becomes one of those heavies that hijack movies with swaggering charisma. The performance is sharply delineated but the character is as blunt as a cudgel. There is evil and it helps keep the world running, our clothes and food coming. This is the greatest, most difficult, most unspeakable violence laid bare in Rathjen’s measured, insistently political movie.

A guileless guide, Chakra is the story’s focus but isn’t one of cinema’s great explainers. Smartly, Rathjen doesn’t try to get inside his head but instead keeps you at his side throughout, making you a close witness to his physical labor, to the assaults on his body, his trauma and his self-preservation. Even the first sound in the movie — the steady flapping of his sandals — underscores his bodily exertions and the insistent rhythms of work. Before you know Chakra’s name, you already have a sense of the relentless exploitation that shapes the lives of everyone in this movie and that reaches from Thailand across the world to homes where pets eat fish caught by enslaved people.

The scenes of Chakra and the men emptying nets filled with fish are unambiguous and sobering. Animal lovers may have difficulty with them. But they demand to be watched. Crucially, these gasping, dying creatures aren’t a misplaced metaphor for these men but are links in the same chain of exploitation. Rathjen has said he was inspired to make “Buoyancy” after reading a news article about conditions in the contemporary Thai fishing industry, and one of the strengths of his movie is that it remains tethered to the material world, to straining muscles, to sweat, to blood. He doesn’t find spurious poetry in other people’s pain or try to glean greater meaning from it. He knows that the suffering is meaning enough.

Buoyancy
Not Rated. In Khmer and Thai, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Watch on Kino Marquee.

The Link Lonk


September 10, 2020 at 08:04PM
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‘Buoyancy’ Review: Enduring Horrors on the Sea, and Struggling to Survive - The New York Times

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