A Conversation with Phuttiphong Aroonpheng and Kong Rithdee
Manta Ray is more or less a continuation of your 2015 short film Ferris Wheel, which also deals with migrant workers and the porous border between Thailand and our neighbours.
Yes. It all began, I think, in 2010 when I was on a road trip with my family to the North of Thailand. We went to Mae Sot, a bustling border town populated by Thai and Myanmar people. I drove around and I came to a small river, which marks a border between the two countries. I saw a boy playing in the river, and soon he called out to another boy who was on the other side of the shore, and he came down to play with the first boy. They were friends, I was sure, from the two sides of the river. And I thought, it’s Myanmar just over there, and there’s basically no border, no line that separates the two places. That image stayed with me for a long time. My original script, which was called Departure Day, had two parts: the first is about a migrant worker from Myanmar who slips through the border into Thailand, and the second takes place in a fishing town and concerns the search for a true identity of a mysterious man. The first part became Ferris Wheel, and I’ve expanded the second part into Manta Ray.
The film centres on two characters, a Thai fisherman and a mute stranger with neither name nor speech. Given the context, we can assume (at least, for Thai audience) that this man is a Rohingya refugee, although there’s nothing in the film to confirm this reading.
When I wrote the first draft of the script many years ago, the Rohingya issue wasn’t in the news at all, and I hardly knew anything about the ethnic minority. Back then, I was working on a video art that looked at the question of identity and especially at the way artists found their identity through their works. From that starting point, I began to contemplate more about other implications of the term “identity”: self, border, ethnicity, nationhood. After 2010s, the Rohingya issue began to appear more in the news. But still, my interest in the problem of identity has remained on the abstract level – it’s not a specific concern about any group of people, or about the past or the present in particular, but about the question of history, prejudice and the fact that we know so little about other people.
So you didn’t do any specific research on the Rohingya.
Not really. However, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar concerns Thailand since many of them have fled across the border or been smuggled by boat to the southern part of the country. What shocked me greatly was when some of my friends became angry and even spread hate speech when they knew that Thailand might shelter some of these Rohingya refugees. I mean, it’s normal for a lot of Thais to look down on people from our neighbouring countries that we regard as “inferior” to us – but it’s just harmless arrogance in most cases. With the Rohingya, it’s different, because the hatred and the racism are extreme and real. I don’t know what to make of it. I know some people who used to criticize the Nazis and ethnic cleansing, but now they’re the ones who can’t stand the Rohingya.
Have you wondered why some of us feel such antagonism?
Maybe because we don’t know enough about these people. Their history has been hidden, buried, or ignored [by their government]. We don’t know them or what they have had to go through over the past century or so. And the fact that we know so little about some groups of people can be dangerous.
The stranger in the film doesn’t speak. Why is that?
Because he represents a people whose voice we’ve never heard. I decided to make him a mute to erase his identity almost completely – we can’t guess who he is from the language or the way he speaks. It’s also a question of plausibility: if I let him speak, then which language? I don’t want him to speak Rohingya because the film doesn’t want to specify who he is. And if he speaks Thai, what kind of Thai? In the film we only hear him make a throaty sound.
How does your career as a director of photography influence your work as a director, especially in this first feature film?
Because I’m a DoP by training, I’m not confident when I have to tell a story through words, dialogue or other devices apart from the cinematography. Manta Ray is driven by visual and sound; it works almost like an abstract piece, or an instrumental music.
And because most of the films I’ve shot in my career are low-budget films, I was trained to improvise and to adapt to the situation. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to design everything in advance and hoping it would turn out as I had envisioned; instead we would go to a location and see what we can do about it. So most the films I shot tend to have this look of a documentary, something slightly spontaneous, and it’s the same in Manta Ray.
But at the same time, Manta Ray has a distinctive visual style. What did you have in mind as you and your DoP went into the shoot?
The idea is to film the characters through a telephoto lens. We wanted them to be seen from a distance and never from up close. We also aimed for the rough and tough realism – maybe because I’ve shot many commercials and they demand me to be meticulous and over-the-top, so I would like something opposite in my own film, something raw and unembellished. The script of Manta Ray is very slim, perhaps only 30 pages. That’s because I was confident that my crew and I could create something on location – we used the script as a guideline and we could adapt to what we had in front of us. The visual style also reflects this.
Was your DoP, Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit, under pressure shooting a movie for you, a well-known DoP himself?
Not at all. I didn’t tell him what I wanted. There’s no baggage on my part or his. I’ve switched roles and I knew that. I only looked into the viewfinder when he was about to press the record button, that’s all. As a director, I like the idea that every member of my team should be allowed to create something from their own talents. So I let the DoP work on his own, likewise the colorist, Yov Moor, who did a great job and created something unusual for a Thai film. My editor, Lee Chatametikool too, had the freedom to explore his own ideas.
Moving aside from the visuals, the aural aspects of the film seem to also be its another notable layer. We hear a lot of meticulously-constructed scores and complex sound designs, sometimes from instruments that are difficult to identify. It sounds very different from most contemporary Thai films around.
We worked with Snowdrops, a music group from Strasbourg (France) who frequently use an instrument called Ondes Martenot. After the shooting, I listened to a number of music proposals for our score and felt very drawn to Snowdrops’ works. They felt to me like a sound of experimental films from the 1950s. My personal taste, coming from a very visual-focused background, leans more towards sound design works rather than instrument-based melodies. My preferred method for scoring films is for the composer to watch the footages and comes up with a sonically equivalent proposal, on how the film should “sound” like, without any pre-determined guideline from the director. Some people can find it a difficult way to work, but I feel Snowdrops have created a very unexpected new dimension into the film.
Can you tell us a little about your three main actors, the fisherman, the stranger, and the woman?
Wanlop Rungkumjad starred in the Thai film Eternity, but when I approached him he said he wanted to take some time off from the film industry. But I persisted and sent him the script, and after that he agreed. The guy who plays the refugee/stranger is Aphisit Hama. We had an audition and over 30 people turned up; Aphisit was the last one we tested. Rasmee Wayrana is a well-known singer in Thailand who fuses traditional mor lam singing with soul and jazz, creating a haunting new genre. I like her face, her eyes, and since the part requires a lot of singing, she’s perfect.
For international audiences and critics, the point of reference on any Thai arthouse film is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Your film is different from Apichatpong’s in many ways, especially the formalist approach, but still the comparison seems inevitable.
I don’t mind that at all! I grew up as a DoP watching and admiring Apichatpong’s movies and his films certainly have an influence on me. In Manta Ray, there’s a soldier character, another Apichatpong’s signature, and critics will notice that. But if you ask me about the director who most inspired me as an artist, it’s David Lynch, especially the film Eraserhead. I don’t understand that film or even know what it is about really, but that’s the kind of film I want to make. Kong Rithdee is the LIFE editor and film critic at Bangkok Post, and regular contributor to Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Sight and Sound and Cahiers du Cinéma