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.
FIPRESCI Young Critics Warsaw Project
Lemana Filandra is a writer and editor at "Klifhenger" (www.klifhenger.com), a site dedicated to movie analyses in Bosnian and English. She has been working as a freelance writer, a researcher, and a translator for the last three years. Currently, She is working on a PhD thesis in philosophy, focused on intersectional feminism and political implications of the concept of body. In the past she had different professional engagements at Sarajevo Film Festival, one of the most prominent European festivals. She also worked as a producer of a music video, a script supervisor and an assistant to a movie director.
Levan Tskhovrebadze is a student of film studies in Ilia State University, Georgia. He has written and made other kind of journalistic content for Georgian outlets like Indigo, Cinemania.ge or Demo.ge. Recently he started working for Ilia State University online publication Cinexpress.iliauni.edu.ge where he writes reviews, articles and also translates some of the important articles or interviews about cinema into Georgian. He has covered few festivals as a film critic. He was doing video blogs for Berlin International Film Festival 2019th edition and has made some content at CinéDOC-Tbilisi and Batumi International Art-House Film Festival. Cinexpress is also the Ilia State University’s Film Club where he made public reports before screenings.
Oleksandra Povoroznyk is a film critic and journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is currently working for Vertigo.com.ua, one of the largest Ukrainian websites devoted to the film industry and entertainment in general. She is also the host of two podcasts about movies and TV.
Denisa Jašová is a PhD student of Audiovisual Studies at Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. As a Film Studies and Archival Science graduate, she specializes on archival research in film and TV history, especially on Czechoslovak amateur film and TV non-fiction programmes from 70s and 80s. She also works as a researcher for TV documentaries, as a librarian in the Central European House of Photography and as a talk show host in student radio talk show called Cinefil. She frequently writes for magazine Film.sk, IFF Cinematik Piešťany and her first paper about the history of Slovak amateur film will be released in October 2019 in Kino-Ikon magazine. She simply loves film archives.
Bogdan Balla is a Romanian experimental film director and freelance film critic based in Bucharest. He studies film directing at the National University of Theatre and Film and writes for FILM MENU. Besides directing and producing his own films, he also works as an independent freelance film critic. He reads bell hooks and is passionate about queer cinema. He has a preference for working with archival footage for his films.
Svetlana Semenchuk is an author of such publications on cinema as “Seanse”, “The Art of Cinema”, “Cinema TV” and other. The author-composer of the books “S. M. Eisenstein: pro et contra: Sergey Eisenstein in national reflection: anthology” and “E. F. Bauer: pro et contra. Eugene Frantsevich Bauer in assessments of contemporaries, colleagues, researchers, film critics. Anthology”. Teacher of the St. Petersburg New Cinema School, and at the St. Petersburg State University of Cinema and Television.
TUTORS of FIPRESCI Young Critics Warsaw Project
Amber Wilkinson is a journalist with more than 20 years experience. She is the co-founder and editorial director of UK-based website Eye For Film. Her byline has appeared in The Times, Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald and Filmmaker Magazine among others. She also contributes as a freelance film critic on BBC Radio Scotland. She has run several FIPRESCI young critics' workshops and mentored student critics at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2018 and 2019.
Tommaso Tocci is based in Italy, where he works as a film critic and translator covering film festivals across Europe for international publications. He has also worked for Berlinale Talents and for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and he currently serves as Co-Programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival in Switzerland.