Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Phuttiphong Aroonpheng's Manta Ray, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from September 26 – October 25, 2019 in MUBI's Debuts series.
The debut feature of writer-director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, Manta Ray is an intoxicating and ostensibly oblique commentary on a pressing contemporary issue that weaves a genuinely otherworldly and bewitching spell. Evocative of the sensual and woozy aesthetic of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, comparisons to whom Aroonpheng, who cites David Lynch and especially Eraserhead (1977) as his rudder, will no doubt very quickly tire, it’s a film whose spirituality gently masks a genuine interrogation of more corporeal matters. Though initially beginning as a dreamlike allegory, the kernel of the film is the plight of Rohingya refugees and migrant workers, a great number of whom perished in the Moei River, a small body of water marking a frontier between Thailand and Myanmar.
Manta Ray is elegantly woven from a deceptively simple plot etched from the fabric of reality. A fisherman, Nobi (Wanlop Rungkumjad), living near a coastal village in Thailand, collects stones from an ethereal forest to help him catch giant manta rays. The forest, its surface covered in fallen leaves that hide human bodies buried in haste, glimmers with twinkling lights said to represent the roaming souls of the dead. Rumors of strange happenings abound. The fisherman comes across a man (Aphisit Hama) who though badly injured and caked in mud happens to be among the living. Taking him to his frugal home, the fisherman slowly cares for the man, patiently nursing him back to health. Though the pair have trouble communicating, with the injured man appearing to be mute, a bond between the pair tentatively develops and a friendship of sorts ensues, cemented when the fisherman names his charge Thongchai, after the famous Thai pop singer Bird Thongchai McIntyre. When the fisherman suddenly disappears at sea, Thongchai anxiously looks for him around town and on the fishing boats. Unable to find him, he continues to live in the fisherman's house, fishing in the way he had been taught. His identity blurs into the fisherman's until one day he finds himself surprised by the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
Dedicated to the Rohingya by Aroonpheng, as the dead could be deceased refugees from neighboring Myanmar, the director has crafted a rather unique and deeply heartfelt and poetic homage in their honor. Manta Ray has caused quite a ripple on the film festival circuit, screening at Rotterdam, Thessaloniki, and Toronto, and winning Best Film in the Orizzonti section at the Venice Film Festival. Narratively the film is somewhat reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) in its use of assumed identity and behavior as a narrative device to explore something altogether more profound. Yet the film is firmly rooted in fact, namely the 2015 discovery on a hill in Padang Besar, a southern Thai border town 300 meters away from Malaysia’s Perlis Tunnel, of a mass gravesite of Rohingyas, whose deaths remains a mystery. The eerie forest voices that recur in the film’s formative passages are the actual voices of Rohingya refugees living in Thailand as recorded by the director. With this knowledge, these dub echoes of sorrow and tears take on an almost debilitating sense of import and meaning.
Aroonpheng, who depicts a way of life predicated on fishing that reminded me of Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar (2009), has expressed concern for the treatment of those fleeing terror in his homeland, remarking that many in Thailand view them as unwelcome and threatening. Confronted with fairly extremist nationalism and discrimination, even from friends with whom the director had shared childhood, Aroonpheng set out to make a film that confronted the idea of the need to preserve borders and structure a society around segregation and distrust. Manta Ray offers a continuation of the director’s 2015 short, Ferris Wheel, and was inspired by a 2010 incident in which, while on a road trip to the north of Thailand with his family, the director witnessed two young children from opposite sides of a river playing together midstream. Writing a two-part project titled Departure Day, Aroonpheng filmed the first, concerning a migrant worker slipping through the birder into Thailand, as Ferris Wheel, and the second, which concerned the arrival of a mysterious man and the search to discover his identity, as Manta Ray. The man discovered by the fisherman is made mute to signify a people whose voice we have never heard.
Described by Aroonpheng, a cinematographer by training (though photographic duties are here very capably handled by Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit), as an abstract piece of cinema equivalent to instrumental music, Manta Ray astringently avoids words to proceed almost entirely through image and sound. The music, a genuinely key ingredient here and an entry point to an entirely “other” dimension, is provided by Snowdrops, a group from Strasbourg who frequently use an Ondes Martenot, giving the music in the film, which is based more on sound-design than melody, the feel of an ethnographic work from the 1950s. The musical aspect of the film is further emphasized by the casting of molam singer Rasmee, née Rasmee Wayrana, as the fisherman’s ex-wife.
A film often so nuanced that it sometimes resembles a shadow, it can at times be more concrete, such as the cryptic phone call that precedes the disappearance of the fisherman that tentatively suggests nefarious government activities and corruption. Manta Ray plays out as an ultimately tragic reverie and an interrogation of the process of assimilation.