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Manta Ray begins with a dedication to the Rohingya Muslims, thousands of whom have braved rough seas and murderous human traffickers to flee state-sponsored oppression at home in Myanmar. The perils of their flight are made visible swiftly in the subsequent scene, when armed men roam a coastal woodland to hunt down and kill the refugees they find, dumping their corpses into hastily dug graves in the dark.
In his production notes, director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng writes about the Rohingya’s plight with the utmost fury, recalling his government’s mistreatment of the refugees and the discovery of mass graves at an abandoned human trafficking base near Thailand’s southern borderlands. But Manta Ray itself is much more than just a political statement in film form. Beyond its opening scenes, the film transcends its thematic topicality to probe the loneliness of the refugee experience.
Revolving around the ebb and flow of a relationship between a fisherman and a mute migrant he saves from certain death by the seaside, Manta Ray thrives on its human element. Anchored in its actors’ poignant performances, the film’s striking visual palette evokes both the refugees’ and their hosts’ gritty existence in a small town and their yearning for human connection beyond the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
At once a visual feast and a nuanced personal drama which embodies all the social and geographical complexities of the global refugee crisis, Manta Ray consolidates Phuttiphong’s transformation from a short film director and also one of Thailand’s best young DPs (Vanishing Point, The Island Funeral) into a full-fledged filmmaker in his own right. A French-Thai co-production completed with funding from Chinese online video portal Youku, it is already soaring on the festival circuit with playdates at Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian, Vancouver and Busan.
In its first act, the focus is on a young Thai fisherman (Wanlop Rungkumjad) who stands out from his co-workers because of his blindingly blond hair and a melancholy look, possibly born out of his failed marriage. Going with the flow of life — and that includes taking part in the odd manhunt around his hometown on the coast — the unnamed protag is jolted out of ennui when he discovers a wounded refugee in the swamps. He brings the dying man home, nurtures him to health and names him Thongchai like the evergreen Thai pop star Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre, whose biggest hit was — according to the fisherman — a song about “the beach, the sea, the wind and the two of us.”
The reference to this ballad is a powerful harbinger of the relationship between the pair. Coming out of his shell, the fisherman shows Thongchai how to swim, drive a motorbike, work on his fishing trawler and hunt gemstones in the woods. In one of the most sensual scenes, he sets up a makeshift dancehall in his home, where the pair dance slowly with their eyes closed under a disco ball and glittering Christmas lights. Due to his connection with the refugee, the fisherman informs his boss he will no longer participate in the deadly manhunts — a decision with severe consequences.
By then, however, Phuttiphong’s focus has shifted to Thongchai. The fisherman’s offer of warmth and friendship has brought him back to life and he is shattered by the fate of his savior, host and friend. Without uttering a single word, Thongchai revisits the many places he went to with the fisherman, confusion and sadness written on his face. His mourning ends with the return of his friend’s estranged wife (Rasmee Wayrana). But their fatal attraction has nowhere to go as their pasts come back to haunt them.
Playing the mute Thongchai, Aphisit Hama delivers a powerful performance that brings his character’s innocence, awe, hopes and fears to the fore without the help of a single spoken word. Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit’s lyrical cameraworkand Sarawut Karwnamyen’s production design work wonders, as in the elegiac denouement by the sea, with floating lights alluding to the refugees’ spirits having flown away, while giant manta rays glide into the depths of the sea.
Production companies: Diversion, Les Films de l’Etranger
Cast: Wanlop Rungkumjad, Aphisit Hama, Rasmee Wayrana
Director-screenwriter: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng
Producer: Mai Meksawan, Philippe Avril, Jakrawal Nilthamrong, Chatchai Chaiyon
Director of photography: Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit
Production designers: Sarawut Karwnamyen
Costume designer: Chatchai Chaiyon
Music: Snowdrops (Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry)
Editing: Lee Chatametikool, Harin Paesongthai
World sales: Jour2Fête
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
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