Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 12, 2019 6:24 pm 
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Cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng's directorial debut is a complex and haunting film whose storytelling has several layers. The story told in Manta Ray is complicated and verges on the mythical.

The film opens on a man in a place of mangroves and forest carrying an automatic weapon. It is a wild looking scene. The ground is sprinkled with flickering lights. The man is draped in a wire of flickering lights too. Later, this place seems to be a killing field, but also a site of semi-precious stones a fisherman has often visited, but is afraid of at night.

We meet a scrawny, bleach-haired young fisherman (Wanlop Rungkumjad). He is rummaging through a muddy forest plain when he comes across a corpse. But the man is not dead, only nearly starved and with a bleeding chest wound. (It turns out he is a Rohingya muslim - many die in this region). The fisherman rescues him and takes him home, nursing him back to life.

As he recovers, the man (Aphisit Hama) turns out to be mute. The fisherman arbitrarily gives him a name, Thongchai, after the Thai pop superstar Bird Thongchai.

Here's a nice idea: a companion who is mute, and also needy, because he's a refugee, and you've rescued him. He keeps you company, he follows you around and helps you, and he makes no trouble. The scenes for a while are peaceful, because Thonghai is soothing company, and the men don't speak. Thonghai indeed follows the fisherman around, helping with chores and riding with him in the sidecar attached to his motorcycle.

Reviews of the film note its "humanism." But is the fisherman doing a good deed, or partly seeking company, and partly atoning for his own as yet unrevealed multiple sins? The fisherman talks to Thonghai (he seems to understand), and tells him one day that he had a wife,but she left him for another man. He is very angry at her and at the man. So Thonghai provides the fisherman with needed company and a soothing presence.

They go back to the forest plain and listen to the earth. The fisherman teaches Thonghai to collect gemstones that he uses to attract and catch manta rays. At night they glow in the ground, he says, but men are afraid to come then because there are so many bodies of the dead here.

In a scene that rhymes with the gemstones in the forest, the fisherman rigs his shack with fairy lights that flicker, and he and Thonghai sway to a dreamy electronic tune. It almost seems for a moment they will become lovers. It's pretty clear the fisherman is also something else, maybe a hitman, himself guilty of murders in the mangrove swamp and indeed atoning (feebly) with the rescue of Thonghai, when he suddently gets a phone calls and answers only, "Boss, I don’t want to do this anymore." Not surprisingly, he soon disappears, and Thonghai is left alone to live by himself in the shack and ride around in the fisherman's motorcycle with its sidecar. But there are more surprises to come, taking us to new and surprising changes in the lives of the characters.

Unfortunately this film gets so involved in its mood-weaving that it winds up taking a little too long to end. Nonetheless the spell it weaves, with its haunting mangrove swamp, mix of calmness and danger, and its ambiguous and changing intimacies, never ceases to be fascinating and promising for the director's future work.

Manta Ray/Kraben rahu, 105 mins, debuted at Venice 7 Sept. 2018. It was reviewed there for Hollywood Reporter by Clarance Tsui. Also reviewed at Venice for Variety by Richard Kuypers, who calls it "promising" and notes that it "is likely to be pleasurably hypnotic for many viewers." He rightly compliments the editing team of Lee Chatametikoolf, who has cut most of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, and "rising young talent Harin Paesongthai," plus dp Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophi and the French team of Christine Ott and Matthieu Gabry who did the atmospheric sound designs. Shown at eight other festivals, including Toronto, Vancouver, and Rotterdam. Screened for this review as part of the 2019 MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films series.


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