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
Călin Boto is a Romanian emergent film critic and the editor-in-chief of Film Menu, a film magazine edited by students of the Film University in National University of Film and Drama in Bucharest (UNATC). He has written articles for several cultural publications such as Dilema Veche,Dissolved Magazine, SUB25 and he coordinates Film Menu’s weekly cineclub. At the moment he’s working on a bachelor's degree on the films and film criticism of Jonas Mekas.
Barbara Majsa was born and raised in Hungary, but currently resides in Sweden and attends Stockholm University for Cinema Studies. She has worked as a journalist since 2009, and has covered several film festivals. Barbara is the managing editor at Cinema Scandinavia, where she interviews film-makers and focuses her work on artistic and cultural products that reflect upon society - films concerning social, societal, economic and political issues.
Yulia Kuzischina is a film journalist, based in Moscow. She studied visual culture at Higher School of Economics and later started to write for two film-related websites, RussoRosso and Kinomania.ru. Currently she also works at a film sales company Ant!pode Sales & Distribution. Her main field of interest is Eastern European cinema.
Tomáš Hudák is a programmer and a film critic based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Programming at independent cultural centre A4 – Space for contemporary culture, which focus on challenging and experimental art, is his main occupation throughout a year. He is also associated with IFF Cinematik in Pieštany, Bratislava IFF, and Film Festival 4 Elements in Banská Štiavnica. Regularly writing for film magazine Kinečko, his texts also appeared in other publications such as Senses of Cinema, Tess Magazine etc. In past, he worked as a film archivist at Slovak Film Institute and his archival research resulted in two papers on local film history.
Daria Badior is a film critic and a Culture Editor of LB.ua, one of Ukraine’s biggest online newspapers. Focuses on writing about contemporary Ukrainian cinema. Also she co-curates a project on LB.ua named Short-list about young Ukrainian filmmakers. Since 2017 takes part in selecting films for Kyiv Film Critics Week, a new film festival held at the end of October. A member of FIPRESCI.
Łukasz Mańkowski Half of the Asian Cinema focused blog ‘Referat Filmowy’, Japanese Studies and Film Theory graduate from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, specializing in Asian Film. Occasionally photographer, translator and theatre-film journalist who simply loves ramen. Previously member of 5 Flavours Film Festival People’s Jury, FEFF Udine Student Campus and EIFF Student Critics Competition.
TUTORS of FIPRESCI Young Critics Warsaw Project
Yoana Pavlova is a Bulgarian writer, researcher, and programmer currently based in Paris.Her field of work includes cinema, VR, digital culture, and the New East. She is the foundingeditor of Festivalists.com (a playform for experimental media criticism), with bylines fornumerous print and online publications in Bulgarian, English, and French. Contributor to thefollowing books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014,Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague(2012, Edno).
Tommaso Tocci is based in Italy, where he works as a film critic and translator covering filmfestivals across Europe for international publications. He has also worked for BerlinaleTalents and for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and he currently serves as Co-Programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival in Switzerland.