Review: Manta Ray (2018)

Revolving around the unlikely friendship between a Thai fisherman and the Rohingya refugee whom he rescues, Manta Ray is an exposition of the perils of displacement and the mindless callousness that has contributed to it, yet also speaks of a humanistic touch and the universal theme of friendship that illuminates the bleakest shadows. Employing a hypnotic, dreamlike landscape, the film often blurs the line between fact and fiction, alluring audiences right into the heart of the magical realism genre.

The film opens with an arresting yet ludicrous image of a man draped in coloured Christmas lights, stealthily staking out the dense forest with rifle in hand. The forest slowly crackles to life as it becomes similarly awash with the coloured lights, accompanied by the haunting, disconcerting soundscape of French duo Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry. This pattern of elliptical sights proves to be a mainstay, with surrealistic sequences characterising much of the film.   

Dialogue is sparse, with the film playing out in silence for a good ten minutes before the first word is uttered. Moreover, our protagonist (a brilliant Aphisit Hamain in his acting debut) never speaks a word, though whether he truly is presumably mute remains a mystery. Seeing as Aroonpheng has dedicated this film to the Rohingyas, the shroud of silence enveloping the film is thus fitting. By robbing the titular character of speech, Aroonpheng deftly reflects the powerlessness inflicted upon the Rohingya when it comes to voicing their own narratives, bringing to mind common media portrayals of the nameless, voiceless refugee. Indeed, the name Thongchai (after Thai pop superstar ‘Bird’ Thongchai) is bestowed upon the Rohingya refugee by the Thai fisherman, albeit in an act of affection.

One is never quite able to detach from the reality of the humanitarian crisis, as it forms an unsettling backdrop that hangs over the film, be it in the spiny, sprawling branches that reeks of disease where Thongchai is first found heavily wounded, or the chilling sequence where he discovers a baby’s corpse buried in the soil, the anguished tears rolling down his face an agonising cry of injustice.

The film, however, never makes the mistake of tottering out the generic tragedy narrative. Aroonpheng neither exalts nor pities the refugee figure, instead simply revealing the vulnerability and fragility of Thongchai, faithfully representing him as fully human and therefore, fully worthy and fully flawed. It is through his feeble uncertainty that we first relate to him, and his unassuming naiveté that continues to endear us to him. Aroonpheng’s success thus lies in eliciting moral outrage without detracting from an intimate, compelling story.

Much of the film’s focus is rooted in the tender notes of friendship that blossom between the two men. As the fisherman teaches Thongchai how to ride a motorbike, brings him gemstone hunting, and even takes him on a ferris wheel ride, he gains an unlikely compatriot and a close friend. In a particularly riveting sequence, the fisherman teaches Thongchai how to breathe underwater by emanating a high pitched, guttural sound resembling the cry of the manta ray, a note which ultimately becomes Thongchai’s own swan song.

It is this very friendship that forces the fisherman to confront his night time activities, which involve a shovel in hand to bury what are presumably Rohingya bodies deep in the heart of the forest, a reference to the 2015 discovery of mass refugee graves in an area of Southern Thailand rife with human trafficking. In a terse conversation with his boss, he plainly states that he “doesn’t want to do this anymore”. A few days later, he disappears.  

In an interesting twist, the lives of the two men start to converge, as each begins to take on the likeness and inherit the circumstances of the other. Discerning audiences will pick up on parallels peppered before the main act drops, which serve as cleverly crafted foreshadowing. The fisherman laying face flat on the ground to seek out hidden gems resembles the pallid position of Thongchai left to die in the swamps, while a scene of Thongchai vomiting his food is closely followed by the fisherman throwing up at sea. In this curious swopping of identities, it is heartbreaking that at the end, no matter what colour Thongchai dyes his hair or no matter the routine he follows, the construction of an identity and the ability to fashion a significance remains elusive, for he inevitably returns to the man in the forest, sporting the same gaping bullet wound as when we first saw him.

One is prone to search for meaning in the variety of symbols employed, but Aroonpheng maintains that it was not his intention to attach allegorical significance to each element present in the film. Question Aroonpheng on the choice of gemstones and he throws out an old WWII tale of pirates burying their gems in the ground, or while musing on the use of coloured lights is unsettled by his admission that colour was not on his mind at all. Indeed, Aroonpheng reflects that much of the film was a product of on-the-spot improvisation, with his actual film script being a mere 30 pages, roughly equivalent to 30 mins of screen time. The dreamy, picturesque sequence of the two men dancing amidst a twinkling array of Christmas lights was, he says, a result of him wondering what else the men could do besides sleep, eat and work, paired with the coincidental possession of Christmas lights on set.

Yet, it is this wildly imaginative, poetic instinct resulting in a mishmash of elusive sequences that best contributes to the overall shape of the film. While this carefree, adventurous approach to filmmaking may vex some, he reveals that the secret key is to “have a crew who can play with you”. His is not a film of strict symbols, but rather a lyrical, atmospheric piece which seeks to drum up alternate worlds and elicit affect. Try too hard to understand the symbols and you miss the point, voluntarily submerge in its kaleidoscopic world and you successfully pass the test.

Perhaps the only symbolic meaning that the director lets on about is the choice of manta rays. Narrating an encounter with a manta ray when he was swimming in the open ocean, he notes that his first response was fear. Yet, upon reading up about them, he grew to be intrigued and fascinated by these creatures, thereby paralleling the idea of irrational fear of the other simply due to our own ignorance.

In a breathtaking final sequence, the chorus of shrill, manta ray like cries achingly pays tribute to the lost voices of the perished Rohingya. Aroonpheng brings back the array of coloured lights and gems that flood the forest, each one a glimmer of a past life. As the camera glides out to the sea’s shore, these lights rise in tandem, while manta rays glide freely in the ocean, each a wistful picture of the director’s own hopes for this persecuted community.

Manta Ray was screened at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival in its Asian Vision section.

Written by Jessica Heng
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