Following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Orizzonti prize, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s directorial feature debut was presented in Toronto, San Sebastian and Busan where it attracted the attention of both critics and audience with its subtle – yet challenging to fully understand – aesthetic portrayal of everlasting immigration issues in Thai society; a slow-core story of a fisherman who finds a shot-down foreigner, and that of an ex-wife struggling to find her place.
Having dedicated his film to the Rohingya people – a Muslim minority from Myanmar who often try to emigrate to Thailand or Bangladesh – Aroonpheng sets MANTA RAY to a decidedly social tune while the plot, slow pace and scarce dialogue resemble Tsai Ming-liang’s style, especially I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (2006). This time, Kuala Lumpur is replaced with Mae Sot – a border town in Thailand populated by Thai and Myanmar people – and the symbolic, unrealistically big moths make space for local beliefs about the titular manta rays.
Just like in one of Tsai’s later works, the socio-political theme is depicted through relationships based on the unvoiced mutual understanding of two people: a wounded Rohingya exile (named like Thai popstar Thongchai), and the native Thai man who nurses him back to life – an immensely talkative misfit in shiny armor and blond hair, whose wife just left him. This monologue-based relationship revolves around situational humour, recurring magical realism and a certain romanticism. We follow them on a ride on a ferris wheel, and dancing together under fairy lights and disco balls. But beneath the surface of a sleek visual language (courtesy of acclaimed DP Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit), Aroonpheng actually lights up the metaphor of national belonging.
MANTA RAY is in fact the reworking of a short film directed by Aroonpheng in 2015 (FERRIS WHEEL), in which the symbolism of the amusement ride was used to grasp the meaning of the circle of life. In both films, the juxtapositions of reverse shots capturing the protagonists reflect the condition of human types in a modern world – the native outlawed by society and the trespassing, wounded immigrant who go up and down on the same wheel. No matter how high they get, eventually both of them will be taken back to earth to their identity conflict. The wheel represents the idea of going nowhere – like the war that has been collecting the souls of Rohingya people for decades. The reverse shots foreshadow an identity swap, allowing the director to seize an image of society in which the ‘stranger’ becomes its opposite. Therefore, there is some hope lurking in the corner.
Through this symbolic yet resonating depicting, Aroonpheng manages to create an ethereal voyage into his vision of modern Thailand, but the detour to the land of universal values certainly makes an appearance as well. Christmas bulbs and magical realism are the key to answering the brutality of everyday struggles, that is, reality – where on every corner there’s a subconscious feeling about committed crime. What is beautiful onscreen fails to prevail offscreen. While immersing into trippiness, one feels the disturbance of the pulsating bulbs worn by an enigmatic gunman who wanders through the graveyard of national identities. It takes time to lure a sea devil, but it’s rewarding when you actually see one, a manta ray.