A social realist work that blends uniquely with a kind of meditative elegy, this rather strong Thai debut feature also features one of the great soundscapes of the year.
Dir. Phuttiphong Aroonpheng
2018 | Thailand | Drama | 105 mins | 1.85:1 | Thai
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Aphisit Hama, Wanlop Rungkumjad, Rasmee Wayrana
Plot: Near a coastal village of Thailand, a local fisherman finds an injured man lying unconscious in the forest. He rescues the stranger, who does not speak a word, offers him his friendship and names him Thongchai.
Awards: Won Venice Horizons Award (Venice); Nom. for Discovery Award (Toronto)
International Sales: Jour2Fete
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex/Elliptical
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore International Film Festival ’18)
This film left me in a deep trance. A rather strong debut feature by Thai filmmaker Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, Manta Ray could be too elliptical and meandering for some, and I agree with that assessment to some extent, but I feel it is the kind of film that one might appreciate more on the second viewing, after having a broader assimilation of its unconventional structure and style.
Centering on a Thai fisherman who finds a motionless man washed ashore at the Thai-Myanmar border, Manta Ray sees them become casual acquaintances after the former nurses the latter back to health. That man is a Rohingya in exile, fleeing from ethnic persecution. He can’t speak but he probably wonders why fate has dealt him with a cruel hand—that he is still alive. Where are the rest?
He finds some sense of purpose in the daily routines that mark a normal life, but Aroonpheng’s work suggests something deeper beyond the surface—that Manta Ray is as much about the dire plight of the Rohingyas as manta rays are seemingly fantastical creatures of the sea.
The film is clearly not a character study or narrative-type movie; neither does it have the aspiration to be a work about the Rohingyas, though it is made in honour of them. One might call it allegorical, which is fair, though I prefer to see it as a meditative elegy, or perhaps a hypnosis.
This is where the film’s soundscape, created by Snowdrops duo – Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry – comes into play, which functions as if it is (and this may sound paradoxical) a subliminal main character. Aroonpheng employs electronic ambient music with sounds of crackling light diodes (also a visual motif). He also pays strong attention to sounds of nature to create an absorbing sound design.
There are long stretches without dialogue, relying on sound and image to bring forth a purely audio-visual experience, which is where (if you are on the same wavelength) hypnosis and trance become apt descriptors of the screen encounter.
In one scene onboard an amusement park’s Ferris wheel, we hear the distinct creaking of unoiled metal that grows more prominently as the ambient sounds recede, much like a physical wind direction indicator flipping in a withdrawing storm.
Some of the most sublime scenes occur in the dead of night in the forest, which Aroonpheng always returns to, probably because it is the site of death for so many. Manta Ray is for arthouse audiences who dig sensorial experiences or want to try something different.