Manta Ray (dir. Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, 2018)

There is a stealthiness and a dreaminess in Manta Ray (2018), the first feature film by cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng who was born in 1976. The film is one of the first fiction films to evoke the crisis of the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in western Burma (Myanmar), from the perspective of Thailand, the land across the border, where refugees are flocking. The film aims less to square the subject in a rational and documented way than to weave a vaporous dream around it. Manta Ray does not present the figure of the refugee frontally but instead evokes his clandestine condition.

On the coast of southern Thailand, a young fisherman with peroxide blonde hair spends his free time unearthing precious stones in the mangroves, which legend has it attract manta rays. One day he comes across a foreigner (apparently a Rohingya) lying unconscious among the vegetation. He takes him home, tends to his wounds, brings him back to life, but discovers him locked in complete silence. The muteness does not prevent the two men from becoming inseparable, nor one from confiding intimately in the silence of the other. But the fisherman sometimes indulges in disturbing nocturnal activities, joining a hooded militia that roams the forest. One evening, he disappears, leaving the stranger to occupy his accommodation and melt into his own vacant existence.

The phantasmal ripples of Manta Ray’s plot delivers intriguing scenes of transference in a form looped on itself, of which we do not clearly perceive the boundary between reality and fantasy, nor even the caesura which allow us to perceive the transition from one character to another. The esoteric fable draws us in through the archetypal figures of the native and the foreigner, as if to make reversible their identities which are only virtually separated by a porous border. 

The relationship of the two characters is illustrated in the first half of the film on an essentially physical dimension, through the curative gestures that one accords to the other and which serve as ground for recognition; the refugee ceases to be a furtive shadow and becomes a real body to be taken care of. This is the most convincing and sensitive part of the film. The film gets lost in fantastical spirals and it is revealed that the characters are only the dream of the other. They are both diluted in the imagination and unable to make contact. In doing so, Aroonpheng seems to be drowning the fish, too often relegating the Rohingya issue to a somewhat bland aesthetic: the same goes for the fluorescent lights that dot the forest floor at night, to signify the invisible slaughter of refugees and the spirits of the dead who rest underground. Despite its very real beauties, including a coastline filmed as a buffer zone between the living and the dead, Manta Ray is not without displaying a certain opportunism. The tenuously divided worlds are a pretext for an aesthetic formalism that does not really produce a common ground.