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Following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Orizzonti prize, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s directorial feature debut was presented in Toronto, San Sebastian and Busan where it attracted the attention of both critics and audience with its subtle – yet challenging to fully understand – aesthetic portrayal of everlasting immigration issues in Thai society; a slow-core story of a fisherman who finds a shot-down foreigner, and that of an ex-wife struggling to find her place.

Having dedicated his film to the Rohingya people – a Muslim minority from Myanmar who often try to emigrate to Thailand or Bangladesh – Aroonpheng sets MANTA RAY to a decidedly social tune while the plot, slow pace and scarce dialogue resemble Tsai Ming-liang’s style, especially I DON'T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (2006). This time, Kuala Lumpur is replaced with Mae Sot – a border town in Thailand populated by Thai and Myanmar people – and the symbolic, unrealistically big moths make space  for local beliefs about the titular manta rays.

Just like in one of Tsai’s later works, the socio-political theme is depicted through relationships based on the unvoiced mutual understanding of two people: a wounded Rohingya exile (named like Thai popstar Thongchai), and the native Thai man who nurses him back to life – an immensely talkative misfit in shiny armor and blond hair, whose wife just left him. This monologue-based relationship revolves around situational humour, recurring magical realism and a certain romanticism. We follow them on a ride on a ferris wheel, and dancing together under fairy lights and disco balls. But beneath the surface of a sleek visual language (courtesy of acclaimed DP Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit), Aroonpheng actually lights up the metaphor of national belonging.

MANTA RAY is in fact the reworking of a short film directed by Aroonpheng in 2015 (FERRIS WHEEL), in which the symbolism of the amusement ride was used to grasp the meaning of the circle of life. In both films, the juxtapositions of reverse shots capturing the protagonists reflect the condition of human types in a modern world – the native outlawed by society and the trespassing, wounded immigrant who go up and down on the same wheel. No matter how high they get, eventually both of them will be taken back to earth to their identity conflict. The wheel represents the idea of going nowhere – like the war that has been collecting the souls of Rohingya people for decades. The reverse shots foreshadow an identity swap, allowing the director to seize an image of society in which the ‘stranger’ becomes its opposite. Therefore, there is some hope lurking in the corner. 

Through this symbolic yet resonating depicting, Aroonpheng manages to create an ethereal voyage into his vision of modern Thailand, but the detour to the land of universal values certainly makes an appearance as well. Christmas bulbs and magical realism are the key to answering the brutality of everyday struggles, that is, reality - where on every corner there’s a subconscious feeling about committed crime. What is beautiful onscreen fails to prevail offscreen. While immersing into trippiness, one feels the disturbance of the pulsating bulbs worn by an enigmatic gunman who wanders through the graveyard of national identities. It takes time to lure a sea devil, but it’s rewarding when you actually see one, a manta ray.

Emir Baigazin returns with his third feature, The River, which concludes his coming-of-age trilogy, consisting of Harmony Lessons (2013) and The Wounded Angel (2016). Consequently to his previous work, he decided to match the symbolism in which the dark times of modernity are presented in slow cinema form. The River offers not only an aesthetic experience, but also a check-up into the vitals of humanity from a contemporary perspective.

In a parched landscape, a family ranch of seven set in the middle of Kazakh, Baizagin paints a disturbing and almost dystopic picture of what it takes to become a man for these five boys. This image of patriarchy is biblical to say the least, because Aslan and the rest of the pack wouldn’t look out of place in an Old Testament story. In Baigazin’s version of one, on the 7th day God created the Internet, disrupting the lives of those down below. In addition to its commentary on the role of mass entertainment and its pervasive influence, it depicts a family living on the line of a pre-internet era - a bubble without consciousness of global events and a purer world that has yet to embrace the tempting power of digital media. When the stranger with a tablet appears, the bubble pops, forcing the family to re-assess the nature of their daily needs.

The Zygmunt Bauman-style concept of the stranger proves that modernity should be discussed within film as a medium, capturing the liquid essence of our times. The River becomes a statement on the descent towards abnormality, with the sudden intrusion of technology into the lives of these boys being contrasted with the panta rhei-esque fluidity of the river. In Baigazin’s world, this sacred body of water becomes an amusement park, a place to let your bad emotions float away, and an opportunity for shutting down your feelings. It adds a little mystery to the story that the other bank remains unknown for a half of the film. Due to the strong currents, crossing the river is the ultimate challenge, an act of transcendence.

One may say that Baizagin style revolves around minimalism, but in fact it is rather a maximalistic spectrum of symbolic references combined into a tale of disillusionment of modernity. On the opposite side of the river, the other is only imaginable through the lens of the media. What we care about is us and what revolves around us. Radio coverages from Myanmar or North Korea spice up the director’s commitment to conceptualizing an ideological point of view, simultaneously providing his characters (and the audience) with a form of counseling, and bringing up the topic of human viciousness.

Even the acting style, in particular those of the brothers, is performative; their dynamics and movements are carefully staged with an Ozu-esque eye for symmetry. On the one hand, they resemble primal creatures, as if the monkeys from Kubrick’s 2001 had finally evolved; on the other, you can’t shake the sense of how calculated it feels. An algorithmic nature and an exact mirroring evoke the contrast that modern society is situated in. We’re drifting between the primal and the mechanical. The condition of the individual illustrated in the film presents an alternative perspective on reality, one in which the media hasn’t influenced people enough yet, but it is progressively getting there. The wave of catastrophical information, sinking into a utopian bubble, irreversibly changes the biblical dimension of the brothers’ world. That’s when modernity kicks in: the intrigue starts, and the ‘black mirror’ of a digital screen invites people to be a god. Baizagin himself is worshipping it, delivering a profound, rich experience and an almost frightening re-envisioning of Lanthimos’ Kynodontas (2009).