Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival (2) - Eddie Cockrell reviews MANTA RAY (Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, Thailand/France/China, 2018)

Charging out of the 2018 international film festival circuit by virtue of well-received screenings in Venice (where it won the Horizons section Grand Prize), Toronto, San Sebastian, Rotterdam and New York’s New Directors/New Films, first-time Thai auteur Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray has a touch of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger to its story of a mute Rohingya man rescued by a Thai fisherman who comes to inhabit his saviour’s life.

A standalone opening credit dedicates the film “for the Rohingyas,” and a word of explanation is helpful: they are the stateless, majority Muslim Indo-Aryan ethnic group from Myanmar (formerly Burma) described in 2003 by the United Nations as amongst the most persecuted minorities in the world. Myanmar law prevents them from obtaining a nationality or moving freely within the country, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded into neighbouring countries.

Phuttiphong Aroonpheng
It is just one of these displaced persons who is discovered injured deep in the forest by an unnamed Thai fisherman (Wallop Rungkumjad), and cared for by the good samaritan until he is well. Dubbed Thongchai in tribute to a Thai pop singer, the man may be the beneficiary of the fisherman’s guilt at his activities when the film opens—perhaps working with a number of other men to bury a few of the many Rohingya refugees who have drowned and washed up on shore. When the fisherman disappears at sea and his ex-wife Saijai (Rasmee Wayrana) comes looking for him, she grooms Thongchai as a replacement and the couple carry on. 

Aroonpheng has employed fascinating visual strategies to promote the metaphors of the tale, including the sparkling fairy lights that adorn a mysterious gunman in the sinister yet beautiful opening scene (he’ll be seen again), which may or may not tie into the gemstones the fisherman gathers to attract the title sea creatures. Are there spirits in play, particularly that of the fisherman? The strength of Manta Ray is that the visual and aural presentation presents enough of substance to allay audiences who want answers without betraying the overarching mood of the film. The Sydney Film Festival—and, indeed, all such artistic endeavours—exist primarily for films such as Manta Ray. Unsure of distribution, a challenging sit at the conventional 105 minutes, the film is, for the curious and hardy, a deeply poetic and visually ravishing exercise in the dramatic by-products of political oppression and the delicate balance between the seen and the unseen.

Saturday 8 June 8.45 Dendy Opera Quays 2
Sunday 9 June 12.00pm Event George St 5

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