Manta Ray (กระเบนราหู, Kraben Rahu), the directorial debut from Thai cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, begins with a dedication to the Rohingya – a group some have described as the most persecuted on Earth, rendered technically stateless and brutally oppressed in their homeland of Myanmar. Many have attempted to escape, often to Thailand, but rarely find safe harbour instead becoming victims of governmental persecution or vicious human traffickers. Manta Ray is a poetic mediation on displacement and identity, but also on the various ways in which neglect of the other is also neglect of the self.
A young fisherman (Wanlop Rungkamjad) with a shock of blond hair gets up to some shady business in a forest but later turns humanitarian when he discovers a badly wounded man lying by the riverside. Discovering the man is still alive, the fisherman takes him to a backstreet doctor and then to his home where he nurses him back to health. As the man cannot speak and possibility does not understand what is being said to him, the fisherman rechristens him Thongchai (Aphisit Hama) after a classic Thai pop star. Despite the absence of verbal communication, the two men begin to bond and the fisherman teaches Thongchai how to live a life like his – how to fish, how to dive, how to find colourful stones in the forest and how to use them to call the manta rays which shelter in a nearby cove after a storm and are soon on their way once the storm has passed. Their peaceful co-existence is soon ruptured when the fisherman fails to return home, leaving Thongchai alone to inherit his life, slipping accidentally into the now vacant space the fisherman left behind.
The film’s earliest stretches serve as a beautiful tale of wordless connection in which the fisherman, perhaps in contrast to what we might expect given the darkness of his activities as glimpsed in the opening scenes, decides to be kind and rescues a man near death, literally giving him a new life and a place in his home for as long as he wants or needs it. Thongchai says nothing, perhaps he cannot speak in any language and probably does not understand the meaning of the fisherman’s words but seems to understand him all the same. Gradually the fisherman brings Thonghcai back to life through passing bits of his own back to him, relating his sad life story of the wife who left him for another man but himself remaining silent about whatever it is he does with the shady crew of a fishing boat out at sea. It is perhaps his sense of compassion which spells his doom – when he tells his “boss” that he doesn’t want to do “that” any more, the fisherman “mysteriously” goes missing at sea.
Thongchai does not steal the fisherman’s identity, but merely inherits a space which had been left vacant by another recently displaced person. He stays in the house and waits for his friend’s return, takes up his friend’s job, and then eventually begins living with the fisherman’s pregnant ex-wife (Rasmee Wayrana) who completes his transformation by dressing him in the fisherman’s clothes and dying his hair a bright gold that shines just like the stones in the forest. The fisherman and Thongchai merge and become one, sharing a single identity until the fisherman himself washes up, injured and bearing the scars of his long journey home.
Yet the forest is always there, waiting, and all roads lead back to it in Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s elliptical tale. Thongchai digs but finds only death and emptiness, the colourful lights he softly danced to with the fisherman eerily echoed by the forest’s grim ghostliness and the glittery horror that stalks its natural beauty. Like the manta ray, Thongchai – a man without a name or a language, may be destined to a life of lonely floating broken by brief periods shelter and connection, always waiting for the storm to pass. Poetic and filled with images of extreme beauty, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s melancholy debut is a poetic meditation on identity and dislocation, arguing strongly for empathy and human warmth over fear and self-interest in an often cruel existence.
International trailer (English subtitles)