Phuttiphong Aroonpheng's debut feature, which focuses on attitudes towards the Rohingya, wins big in Venice
The 2018 edition of the Venice Film Festival, which wrapped on Saturday, marked a turning point in Thai cinematic history, when first time filmmaker Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s “Manta Ray”, being named Best Film in the festival’s Orizzonti (Horizons) section.
Back in 2003, Japanese star Tadanobu Asano won the Upstream Award for Best Actor for his role in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s “Last Life in the Universe”, but this the first time a Thai director has picked up a major prize at one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals.
Though “Manta Ray” is the director’s first feature film, Phuttiphong is not a newcomer to Thai cinema or indeed to being recognised for his work. After graduating from Silpakorn University, Phuttiphong continued his studies at the Digital Film Academy of New York and started making short films and visual art works and his “My Image Observes Your Image if it Is Possible to Observe it” was screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. He is also known for his cinematographic contribution to Pimpaka Towira’s “The Island Funeral”, which won him the Asian New Talent Award for Best Cinematography from the 2016 edition of the Shanghai International Film Festival.
Back in 2009, Phuttiphong was selected as a participant in the Asian Film Academy’s filmmaking workshop organised by Busan International Film Festival and it was here, he says, that the idea for his own feature film was conceived.
“I wanted to do something about the border,” Phuttiphong tells XP. “I directed a video project about human identity, like an artist’s identity. When I started my film project, I decided to cast wider for the subject matter.”
The film project “Departure Day”, which later became “Manta Ray”, was first presented at the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum in 2011, before participating in Produire Au Sud workshop at the Festival of the Three Continents in Nantes, France later that year.
“I heard about the situation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and Thailand and went to Ranong province to conduct my research. My friend, who is a researcher, explained to me in depth what was happening with them. That’s why I decided to make a film about these people.
The director and cast of “Manta Ray” at the world premiere of the film at the Venice Film Festival. From left: Wanlop Rungkumjad, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, Rasmee Wayrana and Aphisit Hama.
“However, during the development process, the slant I was planning on taking changed, especially when I heard people who know nothing about the Rohingya criticising them heavily. I was shocked to see people in my society becoming ultra-nationalist and ready to attack other human beings. That is why the theme of ‘Manta Ray’ focuses more on people’s views and attitudes towards the Rohingyas. I didn’t make ‘Manta Ray’ as a film about the Rohingya crisis, as that problem is highly complex. All we know is from what we have been told by other people, and from the distorted history. I tried to focus on humans who know nothing, know no history, but still judge other human beings,” he says.
Despite its main character being a Rohingya, the drama is not an ethnographic film and does not, as Phuttiphong says, provide information on the Rohingya crisis.
“I am not a humanist nor a social worker. I tried to avoid turning the story into another soapy drama. I prefer to tell this story through my film language,” he explains.
Because of the inherent difficulties faced by independent filmmakers in Thailand, it took Phuttiphong eight years to get started on the film.
“I was lucky in that many people helped me. But what really helped this project was my short film ‘Ferris Wheel’.”
The awardwinning film “Manta Ray” starrring s Wanlop Rungkumjad, right, as the fisherman, and Aphisit Hama, left, as Thongchai, reflects the relationship between homeowners and illegal immigrants in the real world.
In 2015, Phuttiphong was chosen by the Busan International Film Festival as a participant in the Colour of Asia project for which four young Asian filmmakers were assigned to make a short film under the mentoring of Asian auteurs such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Naomi Kawase. With funding support from the programme, Phuttiphong made ‘Ferris Wheel’, which went on to become a film festival hit and earned a special mention award from the Singapore International Film Festival. Moreover at the end of the Busan International Film Festival 2015, Phuttiphong was chosen by the Colour of Asia project as a recipient of financial support from China’s video hosting service Youku to make his first feature film and on top of that, the success of “Ferris Wheel” attracted veteran French producer Philippe Avril to join the Thai team of producers Mai Meksawan, Jakrawal Nilthamrong and Chatchai Chaiyon.
“Originally the film was supposed to have two parts,” Phuttiphong explains. “It was the story of a Burmese immigrant who crosses the Moei river to come to Thailand and the tale of a stranger who is found on the shores of the Andaman. As I had already used the Burmese immigrant idea for ‘Ferris Wheel’, I decided that in my first feature film, I would focus on the man who is found on the shore.”
Of the change of title from “Departure Day” to ‘Manta Ray’, the director says: “Manta rays keep moving. They wander all over Andaman Sea and know no boundaries. It fits with the idea of the film.”
“Manta Ray” tells the story of a local fisherman (Wanlop Rungkumjad) who discovers an injured man (Aphisit Hama) in the forest. The fisherman rescues the stranger, who doesn’t speak a single word. He later calls the stranger “Thongchai” after Thai superstar Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre. One day, the fisherman mysteriously disappears from Thongchai’s life. Thongchai meets Saijai (Rasmee Wayrana), the fisherman’s ex-wife, and bit by bit, Thongchai begins to take over his friend’s life.
Wanlop is a familiar face in Thai independent film and has appeared in such award-winning outings as Sivaroj Kongsakul’s “Eternity”, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s “36” and Pimpaka Towira’s “The Island Funeral”.
After the mysterious disappearance of the fisherman, the stranger, right, Aphisit Hama, starts to take over his life, and also his wife, played by mor lam singer Rasmee Wayrana.
“In 2012, I made a pilot film for the financiers, and asked Wanlop to be in it. I saw him in ‘Eternity’ and liked him a lot. When we actually started the production of ‘Manta Ray’ in 2017, we decided that this character had to be played by him.
“We couldn’t use a Rohingya actor for the part of Thongchai as this would have been illegal. Aphisit is from Sai Buri in Pattani province and came along to our casting call. He has always felt an outsider in Thai society, and that’s the reason we chose him to play this role”
Rasmee Wayrana is an internationally known mor lam singer. And even though she has no acting experience, Phuttiphong chose her to play the role of Saijai, the fisherman’s wife. “We wanted someone who can sing. I saw her on YouTube and I liked her a lot, so we tried hard to track her down and convince her to be in this film.”
Production was completed last October and earlier this year came the unexpected though welcome news that the film has been selected for the Orizzonti competition at Venice.
“I had no expectations at all and I certainly didn’t expect it to come this far. It’s unbelievable that the film was selected for Venice,” says the director.
“Manta Ray” had its world premiere on September 7, the penultimate day of festival and despite many people having already left Lido, the film still got a good buzz.
“My film was the last in the Orizzonti section to be screened. There were not very many people in the audience, but we got good feedback. The festival staff told me that many people waited back to listen to the Q&A, perhaps because they were confused by the story.”
And the very next day, Phuttiphong learnt that he had become the first Thai to win a prize from the festival. “I didn’t expect it to win. I was very excited. My producer might have had an inkling that it could win but to me it came completely out of the blue and I hadn’t prepared a speech!”
After its huge triumph in Venice, “Manta Ray” is continuing its journey, screening at the Toronto, San Sebastian, Vancouver and Busan film festivals in the coming weeks.
“I hope that the film will have its theatrical release in Thailand very soon, perhaps next year." he says.