I think I fell asleep during Manta Ray — the debut feature of Thai cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng — though I can’t be sure. If that’s a value judgement on the film, it might not be entirely negative.

Aroonpheng showed up to address the audience before the film’s New Directors/New Films Festival premiere, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He was heavily jetlagged, and ready to nod off. “My film is quite slow,” he said. “Please don’t fall asleep during the screening! I’ll try and stay awake too.” He knows what kind of film he made; Manta Ray, or Kraben Rahu, is oblique, meditative, and hypnotic. It’s light on dialogue, and heavy on symbolism that you, the viewer, might need to project upon. It opens —after a brief title card that reads “For the Rohingyas” — in a dense forest, scattered with strings of coloured lightbulbs and cheap, plastic disco balls; their presence is, at once, calming and invasive.

The film’s main characters are written with a similar obliqueness, both a local Thai fisherman with bleached-blond hair (Wanlop Rungkamjad) and the Rohingya Muslim refugee he rescues from certain death (Aphisit Hama), who he nicknames Thongchai, after Thai pop sensation Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre. The fisherman and Thongchai never exchange a word — the fisherman talks constantly, mind you, but the two don’t have a language in common — and Thongchai, afraid and isolated, barely expresses what he’s feeling. Yet the film makes tangible the transcendent connection they share, one no more complex and no less simple than the mutual recognition of humanity.

The cheap disco balls in the forest, to which the film frequently returns, are accompanied by a mechanical whirr. A white noise that begins to feel like music, as someone — some anonymous, threatening being, armed with a machine gun — strides through the woods, wrapped in those same multi-coloured string lights, like a suit made of LEDs. As if to welcome us in — or rather, as if to lure us. In these moments, the camera creeps at ground-level, as if crawling to escape unspoken horrors; the short lens contorts the ground itself, making mere movement on land feel like drowning in water.

These woods, more swamp than forest, are littered with death. Bodies — presumably Rohingya, the victims of the world’s worst refugee displacement — lie either partially or completely buried. This is where the fisherman finds Thongchai, submerged in dirt and bleeding out from a bullet-wound below his heart.

All we learn of Thongchai, as the fisherman nurses him back to health, is this painful origin. He is born of violence and he never speaks. The only sound he makes in the film is a low hum, like a spiritual chant. The fisherman teaches it to him as they playfully hold their breath underwater; a survival mechanism, of sorts. The fisherman welcomes Thongchai onto his fishing vessel, where they work alongside a Muslim captain, albeit a local, who speaks the local language. Barriers remain between Thongchai and the captain too.

Thongchai acclimates, but quietly; he adapts, but invisibly. The lonesome, divorced fisherman welcomes Thongchai home, setting up multi-coloured disco bulbs for them to dance to, in silence. As the weeks go by, they grow more comfortable in each other’s presence. One might even read their friendship as romance.

The film bursts to life in these scenes, where wordless conversation evokes a sense of longing; in between these moments, though, the film either holds on stillness, or returns to its oblique, light-up forest, or occasionally dives underwater to capture the hypnotic calm of aquatic life. The process of watching Manta Ray involves a significant amount of waiting for something to happen, though in anticipating a return to the rare breathtaking moments, the interim is never boring — at least not in the traditional sense.

Perhaps “cautious” is the right word. One rarely hears “You can nod off to this” as a recommendation. But director Lou Pepe makes the case for cinematic narcolepsy (during Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and for film as a dreamlike state. Manta Ray feels, at times, like a safety blanket. A sense of security, as Thongchai might experience it; serenity, where nothingness itself is an escape from horror.

There’s a certain breed of festival film that I know, almost instinctively, isn’t for me. This sort of pre-judgement a few scenes in is a bad critical habit, but I suppose my millennial impatience takes hold when lengthy shots of stillness are a film’s chosen dialect. My appreciation for Aroonpheng’s countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for instance, is more academic than emotional (fittingly, Weerasethakul and Aroonpheng have editor Lee Chatametikool in common). Manta Ray is exactly that kind of film, for the most part; while it becomes either fervent tragicomedy or straight-up fever dream every fifteen odd minutes, the intervals between these transformations are a waiting game. The film’s one-and-a-half hours feel like three. And yet, its feeling of forever-ness is accompanied by intrigue. When it seems like “nothing” is happening, the curiosity of what might happen, and the low, hypnotic hum of the disco balls, make for an absorbing concoction.

The fisherman disappears at one point, after which Thongchai begins to walk in his shoes. On paper, it’s a repeat of everything we’ve already seen in the film — the routine motions of a Thai fisherman, portrayed mechanically, with the routineness being the point — and yet the film settles in to an uncanny rhythm, as the fisherman and Thongchai’s duality is replaced by haunting isolation. Group tasks become solo activities and Thongchai becomes a mirror to the man who rescued him, and the film edges towards territory that many refugee stories wouldn’t dare: now that we’re acclimated to Thongchai, the same way he’s acclimated to the Thai fishing village after being accepted, the ugly suggestion of replacement anxiety rears its head.

The film, having rocked back and forth like a cradle for an hour, tips over onto its head. To say exactly how would be spoiling, if such an abstract piece can be spoiled, but it brings a terrifying refugee reality into focus. The local friendship and acceptance Thongchai was granted proves to be fragile, forcing him to return not only to the place he was found, but the physical state he was found in.

Thongchai has no way to be understood. The fisherman thinks he’s mute, but there’s no way to be certain. The fears of those who don’t understand Thongchai turn violence and death into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As he’s forced to retrace his own steps, he lets out that same, visceral hum, through tears, as if trying to re-capture the sense of safety he was once granted by a temporary friendship. Thongchai’s journey to this unspecified place is cross-cut more frequently with the film’s mechanical forest. This time, the creeping camera captures not only the face of the armed man, but the details of his gun as he inches closer. It even offers us glimpses of figures — people, women and children perhaps — escaping the edges of the frame as if fleeing violence, as the invasive whirring continues. It’s no longer something to nap to.

The white noise and Thongchai’s human voice blend together, creating an experience that feels fundamentally at odds with the hypnotic calm of what came before. Like Thongchai’s sudden re-displacement, the film’s final ten minutes feel like a dream, of home and comfort, turned into a nightmare.

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Siddhant is an independent filmmaker & film critic working out of Mumbai & New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SidizenKane.