As an ethnic group almost on the brink of erasure, the Rohingyas are denied citizenships, education and the freedom of movement. Nonetheless, they flee from the oppression of their home country, braving perilous voyages across the sea and ruthless human traffickers. As the astonishing debut feature by Thai cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, Manta Ray (Kraben rahu) is an earnest, human drama hinging upon the friendship of its two main characters while cautiously hesitating to disclose its manifold readings.
Manta Ray opens at night, and the geography is deliberately vague. The camera follows an armed man roaming the woods wrapped in Christmas lights, while others gather around what seems to be either a corpse or just an unconscious person lying in the mud. The unsettling score by Mathieu Gabry and Christine Ott adds to the ambiguity of the opening scene, creating a sense of discomfort that verges on anxiety. The coastal village where the story unfolds has no name and could be anywhere in Thailand. Also unnamed is the protagonist, a young fisherman (Wanlop Rungkumjad) who rescues the wounded man (Aphisit Hama) and brings him home. The cruel political circumstances strip the Rohingyas of their voices, so this man is mute and nameless. But the fisherman calls him Thongchai, and provides a new identity and home.
From the beginning, there seems to be some inconsistencies in Manta Ray’s timeline, but the confusion is masterfully orchestrated to keep the viewer from promptly deciphering the numerous symbolic layers. Questions pile up with no definite answers to be balanced with. Is the fisherman involved in some illegal human trafficking and somehow responsible for Thongchai’s injuries? The film doesn’t tell but small details seem to point to his possible involvement, thus marring the rescue. By learning to trust each other, however, the two men develop a strong bond. Thongchai carefully listens to the sparse words of his saviour and learns the tricks of breathing underwater. Numerous close-ups enrich the lilting flow of Manta Ray, underlining a friendship that blossoms without too many words but with caring moments of human connection.
Although Thongchai is deprived of one of his senses, Manta Ray sympathetically indulges on beautiful shots of a carnival at night with its many lights, and captures the gratitude and excitement in Thongchai’s eyes when the fisherman decorates his rundown home. To compensate for the loss, sight is then exquisitely enhanced. As much as lights can be seen as a way to seal a friendship, Manta Ray suggests that they can also be lures. Manta rays are attracted by coloured stones, explains the fisherman to Thongchai, so much so that drifting refugees can spot land when moonlight hits the stones in the woods.
The appearance of the fisherman’s ex-wife, Saijai (Rasmee Wayrana), breaks the film’s already fragile balance. Kicked out by the lover she cheated on her husband with, the woman doesn’t hover and tries to seduce Thongchai. That’s when gratitude breaks into mimesis, as Saijai dyes the man’s hair and forms a relationship with him. At the mercy of his circumstances, Thongchai welcomes every change with the astonished gaze of a newborn. He seems untouched by malice, completely unscathed by this world’s sins.
Featuring powerful lead performances, Manta Ray is like a perfectly wrapped present that needs to be opened with care. To some, it might seem somewhat contrived, but it’s a clever and elegant debut feature; a perfectly calibrated experiment playing with genres and allegorical meanings.
Serena Scateni (@29s____) is a film critic based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to Take One and other Italian publications. She’s a Japanese cinema enthusiast and usually ends up watching all the East-Asian films screening at festivals.