A humanist heart beats loudly in “Manta Ray,” the promising feature debut of Thai writer-director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng. Centered on a mute Rohingya man rescued by a Thai fisherman after having washed ashore near the Thai-Myanmar border, this superficially simple tale of identity, displacement and friendship is wrapped in layers of symbolism that will likely be pleasurably hypnotic for many viewers. While a tough commercial road lies ahead for the film, it seems assured of a lengthy festival life following September playdates at Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian. It will be interesting to monitor Aroonpheng’s progress from here.
Though locations aren’t given and it’s never stated exactly where the silent and unnamed central character hails from, an introductory statement that reads “For the Rohingyas” leaves no doubt that “Manta Ray” is dedicated to the stateless ethnic minority commonly referred to as the most persecuted people on Earth. By denying speech to the pivotal character, Aroonpheng draws attention to the powerlessness experienced by Rohingya when attempting to exercise self-determination and have their voices heard.
Indeed, it’s a full nine-and-a-half minutes before the first word is uttered here. Up to that point viewers have witnessed sights both strange and straightforward. The first sequence shows a man (Sanit Pasingchop) who’s covered in multicolored fairy lights and carrying a gun while moving through a forest that’s also speckled with sparkling colored lights. In what’s presumably the same general location, a group of men are briefly seen preparing a shallow grave for a corpse.
One of these men is an unnamed Fisherman (Wallop Rungkumjad — “36,” “Eternity”), who later discovers a badly wounded man (Aphisit Hama) lying in mangroves. In gently paced and emotionally rewarding scenes that show what human kindness and compassion are all about, the Fisherman brings the stranger to his riverside shack and slowly nurses him back to health.
Aroonpheng maintains a tone of low-key naturalism as the Fisherman names his new friend Thongchai (after Thai pop superstar Bird Thongchai) and takes him to the forest to collect gemstones that he uses to attract and catch manta rays. In a lovely sequence that forms a strong visual connection with the opening, forest-set scene, the Fisherman drapes his house with fairy lights before the two men slowly sway to the rhythm of a dreamy electronic tune.
But there’s a question of whether the Fisherman was involved in sinister activities in the forest and is now seeking atonement by reaching out to help a survivor. The mystery deepens during a phone conversation in which the worried-looking Fisherman says, “Boss, I don’t want to do this anymore.” Shortly thereafter the Fisherman vanishes without trace at sea.
“Manta Ray” travels further into intriguing psychological territory with the sudden arrival of the Fisherman’s ex-wife, Saijai, played impressively by famous Isaan singer Rasmee Wayrana in her acting debut. Finding Thongchai living alone in her old house, she gradually alters his physical appearance to resemble that of the Fisherman. With Thongchai’s willing compliance, the couple assume the roles of husband and wife, as if nothing had ever happened.
All roads to deeper meaning in “Manta Ray” eventually lead back to the mangroves and forest, where Thongchai begins retracing the Fisherman’s steps from previous scenes and Aroonpheng brings the illuminated, gun-wielding stranger and sparkling lights back into play. While viewers may be puzzled by some aspects of what unfolds in the final sequences — murder and further identity-swapping included — those who’ve tapped into the film’s wavelength are likely to sense that these environments are inhabited by the spirits, voices and memories of Rohingya who perished while fleeing persecution.
Elegantly edited by the team of rising young talent Harin Paesongthai (“Someone From Nowhere”) and Thai cutting-room ace Lee Chatametikool (most of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films), “Manta Ray” is especially well served by the subtle soundscapes created by French duo Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry. Cinematographer Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit also makes a fine contribution, with unfussy lensing of conventional dramatic material and spellbinding imagery during the film’s excursions into symbolism and metaphor.