In the realm of Manta Ray

Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, in his directorial debut, has managed to merge high style with heavy subject matter

Manta Ray. Photo courtesy of Diversion

There's a shot of a manta ray in Manta Ray, and one is invited to read into the symbolism of the gliding creature whose journey transcends man-made boundaries. Kraben Rahu (Manta Ray) is the most anticipated Thai film of the year, and after almost a full year of travelling the film festivals of the world, like the majestic fish itself across the ocean, it has come ashore in select Thai cinemas this week.

"I'm more excited showing the film here in Thailand than when I showed it in dozens of countries in the past year," said writer-director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng at the film's special screening at the Bangkok Asean Film Festival earlier this week. "The issue addressed by the film is more relevant to Thai audiences, or so I hope, than to audiences elsewhere. At some screenings abroad, the viewers didn't even know who the Rohingya people are."

The issue of the Rohingya, the ill-treated minority from Myanmar, is pronounced early in the film. But to Phuttiphong and his discerning viewers, Manta Ray speaks of something more universal: displacement, borders, refugees, imagined homeland, national constructs, and how identities flow and shape-shift, defying clear physical and psychological demarcations. In fact, besides the sole reference to the Rohingya in the opening shot, the film glides on the sensuous abstraction that moves it beyond human rights reportage or anthropological narratives. Manta Ray manages to address a global issue by framing it within a Thai context.

The film premiered last September at the Venice Film Festival and won the top prize in the Orrizonti section. Since then it has been shown in over 50 film festivals around the world, from Mexico to Taiwan, collecting around a dozen more prizes along the way. On Monday, it won Best Asean Feature at the Bangkok Asean Film Festival. After a stellar tour, it was finally released at certain Major Cineplexes yesterday.

Phuttiphong, in this directorial debut after years of working as a cinematographer, has found a way to couch the heavy subject matter in a visual formalism that combines disco orbs, neon glows and something akin to a digital forest.

At the centre are two men. An unknown man washed ashore at a mangrove marsh somewhere along the South of Thailand, and a fisherman who rescues him. As the stranger, who can't speak and whose background is a mystery, and his saviour become friends, their lives become intertwined and their identities -- or maybe their dreams -- seem to fuse into one another in the fevered sunshine of the coastal town.

Actor Wanlop Rungkumjad, director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, actress Rasamee Wayrana and actor Aphisit Hama at Manta Ray's premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last year. Manta Ray

Though the unknown man is never identified, we can presume that he's a Rohingya, imperilled in ocean flight. The film doesn't spell it out clearly, but again we can detect references to the news headlines of the past few years about the plight of Rohingya refugees whose boats were pushed back from entering the Thai waters, and about the horrific discovery of mass graves in Songkhla province, where over 30 Rohingya were buried by human smugglers.

"I wasn't a human-rights worker, not at all," said Phuttiphong. "When I wrote the script nearly 10 years ago, the Rohingya weren't in the news, and I hardly knew anything about the issue of ethnic minorities.

"I was at the town of Mae Sot in the North to work on another project when I saw stateless people living along the border, on the bank of Moei River that separated Thailand from Myanmar. I saw some kids crossing back and forth by the river, and I started thinking about how they didn't consider the river a border at all -- to them the line didn't exist. From there, a story began to form."

It would take a few more years before the project took shape, and by the mid-2010s, the Rohingya issue became headline news, along with other refugee crises that erupted elsewhere in the world. In the Thai context, Phuttiphong said he was struck by the intensity of hatred, expressed with abandon online by some Thais against the Rohingya -- he believes it was fear born out of ignorance that had inspired such antagonism.

Following a long gestation process, Phuttiphong's original idea about the northern stateless people was turned into an award-winning short film called Ferris Wheel in 2015, while the Rohingya story gradually unfolded to become Manta Ray.

Refugees, displaced minorities, stateless existences, migrant workers: these are among the hot buttons that have moved a few Southeast Asian filmmakers in the past few years. Manta Ray joins titles such as A Land Imagined, by Yeo Siew Hua, in which an insomniac detective investigates the disappearances of Chinese and Bangladeshi migrant workers on a land-reclamation site in Singapore (you can find it on Netflix); and Soil Without Land, a Thai documentary about young men in Shan State (opening here next month).

Phuttiphong, however, relies on his visual language to create a mood piece that hides its tremor under a coloured prism -- the bleached hair of the fisherman, the rainbow lights that glow from the forest floor, the neon dance in a shack. One half a display of realism and documentary-style honesty, the other half of Manta Ray works like radiant hypnotism where magical elements find their way into the seaside town where the two men -- and later a woman -- share their lives. The film is an ambitious work of fiction with one foot planted firmly on the real ground.

It's not Phuttiphong's intention to highlight the suffering of the Rohingya on the big screen. Rather, he said: "You can read about five hours' worth of information about the Rohingya and other refugees in the news." What he does in his film is to meditate on the thin line that defines land and border, man and ghost, reality and imagination, in a film that feels at once weightless, like a winged manta ray flying underwater, and at once loaded down with all the problems of our world.

Manta Ray is showing at Paragon Cineplex, Esplanade Ratchada, Esplanade Ngamwongwan-Khae Rai, Major Cineplex Ratchayothin, Major Cineplex Rangsit, CineIcon IconSiam, Future Park Rangsit, Central Westgate, Megabangna and House RCA.