Manta Ray is the directorial debut of Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, an already acclaimed Thai cinematographer. Even if one didn’t know this, watching his first feature makes it abundantly clear. He has a knack for creating memorable imagery, using his skills here to elevate what could have been a gritty, documentary-like film into something far more distinct and unique.
The movie is unpredictable, shifting between many genres. It begins as a straight forward social realist drama, although one with flecked with surreal, strange visuals. The opening credits feature a dedication to the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic group living in Myanmar but within the country denied citizenship, along with freedom of movement, state education and civil service. This has led many of this stateless group to flee to countries like Thailand. Manta Ray is set on the Thai coastline where by the time Rohingyas arrive, some are on death’s door. They’ve had to face rough seas, along with smugglers with sinister intentions.
Writer-director Aroonpheng sets the latter up in a striking opening scene. Wrapped in fluorescent Christmas lights, an armed man stalks a forest at night. He and a group of others bury the dead body of what is assumed to be a Rohingyan (after its opening title, all references to the real world are dropped). One of these people is our lead character, an unnamed Thai fisherman (a mesmerizingly melancholic Wanlop Rungkumjad). He stands out from the posse with his bleach blond hair.
One day, this fisherman discovers a mute Rohingyan (Aphisit Hama) lying half-dead in a swamp. Instinctively, he takes him to a hospital and nurses him back to health. The two bond in a handful of touching scenes. Moving from stoic to emotionally naked the fisherman reveals to the mute that he is divorced and lonely. He then names the Rohingyan ‘Thongchai’ and teaches him to drive a motorbike, work on his fishing trawler and hunt gemstones in the woods – the latter used to attract the titular sea creatures.
Their friendship grows so strong in fact that the fisherman tells the armed man from the opening scene he no longer wants to work for him. For a brief period, the film mutates into a crime thriller as our unnamed protagonist is eyed suspiciously by his ship mates at work. Proceedings, however, take another eerier turn when the fisherman disappears and Thongchai begins taking over his life – dying his hair blond, working the boats and connecting with his missing friend’s ex-wife (Rasmee Wayrana).
Institutions, place names and geopolitical strife are never referenced explicitly. The dialogue is always kept as sparse as possible. This enables Aroonpheng to build a world which exists partly in reality but partly somewhere else, the two states bridged by his visuals. A makeshift disco in the fisherman’s home where he and his new friend dance; underwater shots of dazzling fish swimming – these are images that feel tangible but also dream or fairy-tale like.
Like EAFFI’s other screening Long Day’s Journey Into Night, one wishes Manta Ray would infuse it’s palpable sense of atmosphere with a more propulsive narrative. It could perhaps lean into its crime elements or the terror of its 3 Women/Persona-esque identity swap a little further. This is particularly felt in the movie’s ending which feels like a fitting symbolic conclusion – returning to the forest of its opening scene – but less satisfying on a pure story level.
Still, Manta Ray manages to do a lot in its 105-minute running time. The film builds its own heightened world. It dips in and out of various genres. It manages to be an effective metaphor for both the cruelty the Rohingyas endure, as well as the fear some people harbour for immigrants. But most importantly, it’s a humanist look at how two people of radically different backgrounds can find common ground. In managing to balance all this, Manta Ray feels as fluid as the waters of the Thai coastline.