This year’s Orizzonti Best Film winner at the Venice Film Festival, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray, is the first Thai movie to win a major accolade in the festival’s history. It’s also one of only a handful of movies in existence that address the plight of the Rohingya people, a largely Muslim, Myanmar ethnic minority community that has been dubbed the “most persecuted minority in the world”. Stripped of citizenship and basic legal rights over the last forty years – and, more recently, subjected to horrific ethnic cleansing campaigns at the hands of the Burmese military – over a million Rohingya now live in dire conditions as stateless refugees in the countries neighboring Myanmar. International attention has been rare and scant; only since intensified violence in August of last year did the Rohingya’s plight begin to feature prominently in international headlines.
But Aroonpheng, who is Thai, has long been aware of the Rohingya crisis; Manta Ray was devised six years ago after Thailand saw a wave of Rohingya refugees following outbreaks of violence in neighboring Myanmar in 2012 (two years after the country began transitioning to democracy). In the interceding years, Thailand has reckoned with revelations about its complicity in anti-Rohingya atrocities: in 2013, Reuters uncovered an official Thai government policy that sought to rid Thailand of the Rohingya refugee “problem” by selling them to human traffickers, and in 2015, Thailand again refused to provide sanctuary to Rohingya refugees, this time by leaving hundreds stranded at sea. In the same year, mass graves containing trafficked Rohingya refugees were discovered in southern Thailand; a corresponding trial in 2017 revealed official complicity in their deaths.
It’s not immediately obvious on first watch, but it’s this harrowing reality that forms the backdrop to Manta Ray. Bar the film’s opening dedication (“For the Rohingya”) the movie’s sparse script gives no hint as to its hot-button context. There are visual signifiers there for those with enough topical knowledge to interpret them – the film’s refugee character is shown praying the Muslim prayer, and the film takes place on the Thai coast, where human trafficking of the Rohingya has long taken place – but even if you aren’t clued-up enough on the news to pick up on these references, you’ll be able to sense, from the implied specificity and dreamlike nature of its story, that the film has an allegorical mission.
Manta Ray begins fairly simply. A young Thai fisherman (Wanlop Rungkumjad) happens upon an injured, mute Rohingya man (Aphisit Hama) in a Thai coastal forest under which scores of bodies lie buried in shallow graves. There are elements of the bizarre in this portion of the film – masked men stalk the forest wrapped in strings of crackling fairy lights – but what strikes as even more unexpected is the loving devotion that the fisherman (never named) shows towards his wounded companion, whom he dubs Thongchai after a Thai pop star. As part of his rehabilitation, the fisherman coaches Thongchai in his way of life: how to cook, how to dive, how to ride a motorcycle, how to hunt for gemstones and how to fish.
But when the fisherman unceremoniously disappears one night – ominously, right after telling his boss he wants to quit his shady night-time job – Thongchai is on his own again. The arrival of the fisherman’s ex (Rasmee Wayrana) soon after his disappearance sets in motion a curious chain of events that build on a sense of surreality Manta Ray has so far only hinted at: gradually, silently, Thongchai begins to slip into the skin of his friend, taking on his job, his physical appearance (an idiosyncratic shock of blonde hair) and “resuming” a relationship with his ex.
The slow assumption of his friend’s identity is never explicitly addressed in the film, a directorial choice characteristic of Manta Ray’s enigmatic approach to storytelling. But far more than making the film cryptic beyond sense, the murkiness of identity in Manta Ray intelligently mirrors the real-life struggles of Thongchai’s community. Denied citizenship by their home country and their host states, Rohingya refugees are effectively stateless, their lives suspended in indefinite limbo. Having fled genocide in Myanmar, their plight persists even in the places they seek sanctuary: neighboring governments reject them in their thousands, leaving them to starve at sea, traffickers dupe women and children into prostitution, and over-filled provisional camps struggle to provide even the most basic standards of living and security.
So when the film’s refugee is discovered without means of identification – a situation faced by most Rohingya, who have been denied identity documents by the Myanmar government for decades – he is effectively a blank slate, claimed by no one and free to be projected on. That the fisherman can give “Thongchai” a Thai name and design his life as if it was his own underlines the stripping of personal agency of so many Rohingya.
Thongchai’s muteness (an element the film mimics by being virtually wordless until around ten minutes in) works as a metaphor for the same thing. Voiceless, he is deprived of the opportunity to define himself and must go along with what is thrust upon him. His story – how he arrived in Thailand, why there is a bullet-hole in his chest – remains untold, in much the same way as refugees the world over have historically been denied a voice in their own narrative. His muteness is a clear nod to the (sadly standard) media image of the nameless, voiceless refugee, a norm that organizations like the USC Shoah Foundation and Restless Beings have worked to undo.
In its own quiet, minimalistic way, Manta Ray also strives in the same vein. When he sets out on his own for the first time, Thongchai stands alone at the edge of the water that washed him up onto Thailand’s shores and marks his newfound independence by humming rhythmically. The film is given its noisiest moment yet when a chorus of invisible voices suddenly joins Thongchai’s; it’s never explicitly explained where they come from – so lowkey is Manta Ray’s style – but these new harmonies are in fact made up of the voices of real Rohingya people, whom Aroonpheng included in the scene as part of a conscious effort to involve the movie’s subjects in its representation of them.
And there’s another moment when the film seems to throb with the presence of the real Rohingya, too. It’s during a night-time scene, when the gemstone-littered floor of the forest where Thongchai was found (and, crucially, where the graves of other Rohingya lies) begins to stir, the gems rising above the leaves and the soil in much the same way cinematic zombies are known to do. Like zombies, they seem inexplicably, irrationally alive, as if they’re the crystallized souls of those buried barely two feet below: the scene deliberately calls back both to that news story from 2015 and to the scene those headlines inspired in Manta Ray, during which we glimpse a group of men digging shallow graves, presumably for the refugees they hunt at night.
The neon spectacle is both beautiful and deeply haunting, although not in the outright fantastical way in which zombie horror operates. Using a magical realist effect, Aroonpheng shoots the sequence in such a matter-of-fact style that the supernatural element becomes realistic (a method fellow Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has used to similar effect). The result is a changed film; from this moment on, there’s a tangible otherworldly presence lingering at the edge of every scene.
Through these surreal touches, Manta Ray can do something that the cold medium of statistics can’t: it makes a real-life horror – one of the worst of our time – humanly perceptible. Its symbolism is rich but simple, its storytelling instinctively comprehensible where news stories can confuse. It is a rare example of issue cinema that transcends its own topicality; indeed, in its final image – a graceful, gliding manta ray – it reminds us that humans are the only animals unable to migrate freely.
Manta Ray is available to watch online via Festival Scope until September 19th.