The directorial debut of Phuttiphong Aroonpheng called “Manta Ray” premiered in the Orizzonti section at this year’s edition of Venice, scooping the main award and getting on an extended festival tour that included Toronto, Vancouver, Busan, Thessaloniki (where it pocketed Best Director award for Aroonpheng, Artistic Achievement award for the cinematographer Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit and Human Values award) and, among others, Zagreb, scoring Special Mention in the main competition. Austere in dialogue, but rich in atmosphere, this film realized in Thai-French-Chinese co-production puts its writer-director in the spotlight as someone worth attention in the future.

“Manta Ray” starts with a dedication to Rohingya, a stateless people which faces horrific persecution by the government forces in their homeland in north-western Myanmar. Many Rohingya are driven out of their homes and they live as refugees in the other states of South and South-East Asia, in Arab countries (the majority of Rohingya are Muslims) and in the Western World. Some of them are being smuggled into Thailand which is, as the region’s most Western-oriented country in the political sense, considered to be a decent starting point before seeking political refuge somewhere else. But the welcome they are facing is usually far from being warm and it can get pretty violent.

hose things, however, are not easy to be read from the film itself, but are a part of Aroonpheng’s production notes which he frequently uses in his interviews and festival appearances, since “Manta Ray” is primarily about humane experiences like melancholy, poverty and solitude. However, the first thing we should see after the title card is a man patrolling the coastal region, lit up with Christmas lights and with a gun in his hands. We never learn his name, only his unorthodox appearance with his hair dyed blond and his never-changing daily routine of work on a fishing boat and patrols with his colleagues.

On one of his rounds, the nameless fisherman (played by Wanlop Rungkamjad) finds a severely wounded, mute Rohingya man (Aphisit Hama) he takes home and nurses to health. He even names him Thongchai, after his favourite singer Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre (apparently, considered to be evergreen in Thailand). Thongchai appreciates the help he gets and quickly learns the skills his host teaches him, like fishing, motorbike driving and digging for sparkly gems that are to be used later to attract the titular fish. The fisherman, on the other hand, appreciates having company and someone to talk to and to share his pain with. However, when he disappears following a suspicious phone conversation with his boss, Thongchai takes over his life, his job and his wife (a music star Rasmee Wayrana in her acting debut)…

A voiceless refugee might seem as a heavy symbol, especially in the times of refugee crises all over the world, but it actually works well on the cinematic level. The pain both Thongchai and his host are sharing is not so different after all, they were both with limited chances, restricted to poverty and for them the life has always been an uphill struggle. Also, that enables Aroonpheng to show rather than to tell, to use the visual language, the music and the atmosphere to tell a specific story that unfolds in a meditative pace, and more to create a certain feeling of being a failure, pushed to the margin of society, but also regaining trust in humanity.

With not much dialogue to work with, the actors do a terrific job of showing the chemistry among them and recreating an unlikely friendship. That especially goes for Hama who has to act in very fine nuances, which he does so quite fine. Rungkamjad’s challenge is, however, of the other kind, not exactly the lack of dialogue, but the lack of significance in the words he speaks, since he utters them to a silent recipient and not necessarily to the audience, and he excels in it.

Even more interesting are the formal aspects of film, the visuals, the set design, the editing and the sound scheme. Cinematographer Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit does a brilliant job balancing the poetic value of the dream-like almost surreal moments between the two men with the grit of the daily life in a poor fishing village, and being a cinematographer himself, Aroonpheng is able to communicate what he wants, exactly . The editing by Lee Chatametikool and Harin Paesongthai is superb, while the music by the French duo Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry fits in well.

“Manta Ray” is not a piece of political statement, nor it is a futile exercise in form. It is an accomplished debut feature, an immersive, strong experience that needs to be seen, heard and felt.

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