Ghosts of various stripes

Thailand is well-represented at this year's Toronto International Film Festival — and with a kind of thematic consistency


Refugees, human-trafficking and a ravenous ghoul show the real and fantastical facets of Thailand in the movies showing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The highest-profile among them is Phuttiphong Arunpheng's Kraben Rahu (Manta Ray), a lyrical fiction about a Rohingya refugee and a Thai fisherman who form a bond (read an interview with the director in our Tuesday issue). Well-received in Toronto as well as Venice, where it premiered last week, Manta Ray is now the year's most-anticipated Thai film and will open in its home country in a few months.

Lesser-known, and yet incidentally sharing a theme with Manta Ray, is a feature-length documentary called Ghost Fleet. Showing in the documentary section in Toronto, the film recounts the ordeals of slave labour in the Thai seafood industry, with a focus on the work of NGO officer Patima Tungpuchayakul, who takes on the task of rescuing a number of Thai and migrant workers abused by the industry and later cast adrift in a land that's not their home.

A classic example of activism filmmaking, Ghost Fleet, directed by Americans Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldon, follows Patima on one of her recuse missions to Benjina, a remote island in Indonesian waters, where several fishing-boat "slaves" have been imprisoned in harrowing conditions. The island, as well as a few others nearby, is also where a number of workers -- from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos -- have escaped and decided to settle down, living in strange limbo in a place that at least allows them some freedom while still longing to go home.

The camera stays close to Patima, who with her team has made countless trips to these islands over the past many years, and the testimonies from the workers are tales of exploitation, fear and heartbreak -- this after the film has reminded us that the Thai seafood industry is one of the largest in the world. Now, this same story was big news in Thailand three years ago, as Thai journalists travelled to Benjina and brought back footage of the stranded workers, their eyes like zombies', tormented by incarceration and abuse. Meanwhile, the horror stories of trafficked labour toiling away with no pay on fishing boats have constantly made headlines in relation to Thailand's status in the US Trafficking In Persons Report (the country had been downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List in 2015, and this past July was upgraded back to Tier 2). Ghost Fleet, however, has a patience and a length that allow it to bring more of a human story to the fore, and as a result reminds everyone that to balance human rights and prosperity is most challenging and indispensable, and that the work to clean up those fishing boats still has a long way to go. Let's hope the doc finds its way to Thai cinemas and television soon.

Of an altogether different mood -- and an altogether different kind of ghost -- Toronto has a slot for Folklore: Pob, a horror tale directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Commissioned by HBO Asia as part of their Folktale series featuring Asian filmmakers, Pob is shown in Toronto along with the Indonesian episode of the ensemble (called A Mother's Love, directed by Joko Anwar). The hour-long films will premiere on HBO Asia in October.

Pen-Ek is not one who likes to play it straight. Though a ghost story in form and appearance, Pob -- referring to a species of ghost that feeds on human guts -- again has the playfulness and black-comedy spins we've often seen in his movies. Shot in black-and-white, the story follows an online reporter who, out of sheer luck and perhaps ignorance, scores an exclusive interview with a pob after the bloodthirsty ghost has committed the crime of eating an American man in his own house -- a crime story like no other.

Besides the scare, the pob story becomes a satire on East-West understanding of the supernatural and a metaphor for societal outcasts. At a time when "television movies" -- from HBO to Netflix -- have claimed a share of the spotlight and prestige, Pob and the rest of the Folklore series are certainly something to look forward to.

Toronto is showing another film about Thais. Heartbound chronicles the lives of several women who leave their home countries in order to find husbands and provide for their families, including Thai women. I didn't manage to catch the film prior to the deadline of this article.

Toronto International Film Festival runs until this Sunday.