Phuttiphong Aroonpheng's Manta Ray (2018)

Over a week ago, Facebook users in the Philippines discovered that duplicates of their account surfaced overnight sending widespread fear and panic. Authorities said that this was probably a result of some technical glitch or bots at work, but many believe this to be a deliberate and orchestrated attempt by government trolls to sow discord and intrigue in the face of a popular opposition to the Anti-Terrorism Bill that Congress passed recently. The fear had a material basis; fake accounts of people critical of the bill –from a senator to celebrities and activists, from an associate justice of the Supreme Court to artists and students – not only started showing up in searches, but they were sending threatening messages to the original owners. These faceless accounts were reported to Facebook and the problem seemed to have evaporated as quickly as they came. However, the mass reporting also affected namesakes, real people whose likeness is limited to mutual names who live their fully different and independent lives.

Once in a while one encounters persons who appear like a reflection in the mirror, a spitting image or a doppelganger. This is also true to certain films, film cousins if I may call it, whose trajectories and existence occupy different planes but somehow they intersect, connect and share a common ground.

Such is the uncanny likeness of Tsai Ming Liang's I Don't Want To Sleep Alone (2006) and  Phuttiphong Aroonpheng's Manta Ray (2018). They hold a mirror to each other, like a mime imitating someone from another country on Facebook Live. For a starter, both films premiered at Venice. Tsai's work won the grand jury prize in the main section, while Aroonpheng bagged the top prize in the Orizzonti section. The semblance does not end there.

Two parallel stories make up I Don't Want To Sleep Alone but for this discussion I will dwell on the story of the Homeless Guy, whether or not he is a vagrant or a laborer is unclear, who is severely beaten by a mob in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. A Bangladeshi migrant worker, Rawang, takes him to his place in a derelict building or an unfinished construction site and slowly nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, Manta Ray begins with the discovery of a wounded man in the mangroves. There is little hint on the origin of this man, but the introduction of the film that reads “For the Rohingyas” leads us to believe that he is a refugee. He is rescued by the Fisherman who brings him to his shack by the river and nurses him back to health. The Fisherman names him Thongchai, in reference to a popular and highly regarded Thai-Scottish singer Thongchai Bird McIntyre.

There is sparse dialogue in both films. Thongchai, we learn later, is actually mute, symbolic of the status of the Rohingya people's statelessness and vulnerability in the midst of the persecution and violence inflicted by Myanmar that has resulted to multitudes of Rohingyas fleeing to Thailand, India and Bangladesh as unwelcome guests.

We are introduced to the landscapes in the films. The anxiety of the urban jungle, a signature of Tsai in most of his films, is represented by the cold, grey architecture invaded by water that creates a pool in the basement of the buiding. Outside a thick haze envelops the city blurring not only vision but also the boundaries of noticeable landmarks that divide the urban and countryside. This invasion of smoke from forest fires in neighboring Sumatra is the damning result of the conversion of forest lands into palm plantations which has become a modern reality in Malaysia and Indonesia, and extending to the Philippines in recent years. This drifting also embodies the ceaseless influx of people to Kuala Lumpur becoming an economic and cultural hub, a place where people with their own reason and purpose intersect. It is perhaps the same transience that has defined Tsai's hybrid identity being Malaysia born (in Sarawak) and a Taiwanese national.

A still from Tsai Ming Liang's I Don't Want To Sleep Alone (2006)

In contrast, Aroonpheng's film is awashed with the natural realism of a thriving fishing village in which the sea serves as the source of the people's livelihood as well as the natural demarcation of the permeable Thai-Myanmar border. The forest is shown, too; the film starts with a scene in a dense forest littered with glowing stones of kaleidoscopic shapes and colors. It is a source of enigma; in its belly lies many sinister secrets.

We follow the characters as the stories patiently unfold. Rawang cares for the Homeless Guy. They sleep together in the salvaged mattress from which the Homeless Guy is carried around in the streets after his attack. While Thongchai recovers from his wounds, he develops a strong friendship with the Fisherman who teaches him how to ride a motorbike, entertains him with stories of his ex-wife, and trains him how to stay underwater for an extended period of time. Rawang begins to fall in love with the Homeless Guy, but there is no trace of a romantic entanglement between the Fisherman and Thongchai despite a tender scene in which the two slowly dance with the rhythm of electronic music, bathed in dazzling, hypnotic fairy lights evocative of the ethereal quality of the thick forest in the opening sequence.

Upon Homeless Guy's recovery, he begins sneaking out of the building and engages in a sexual tryst with a maid. Later the Homeless Guy decides to move in with her, taking along his only possession – the mattress that he shares with Rawang. In their last night together, consumed by silent rage and jealousy, Rawang attempts to kill Homeless Guy by pressing the ragged lid of a sardine can on his throat in what could be one of the most iconic scenes in Southeast Asian cinema. But Rawang's deep affection prevents him from fulfilling his scheme. We see the Homeless Guy looking at him with compassion and tenderness as he reaches for Rawang's face to wipe away his tears.

When the Fisherman disappears under mysterious circumstances, his ex-wife emerges finding Thongchai living alone in the river shack. Instead of driving the stranger away, she fashions him to resemble her lost husband, changing his haircolor and appearance like a doppelganger, and they assume the role of husband and wife in the process. In many ways, this is a continuation of the Fisherman's attempt to make Thongchai his own creation by renaming him and making him the village's native son. Thongchai becomes a willing accomplice in the remaking of his identity, and in this act of cultural and historical erasure, assimilation to Thai society for the Rohingya might mean abandoning their own identity to fit in the standards that ensure them a welcome status.

A striking leitmotif in the two films is the use of a faded mosquito net. Underneath the mosquito net is the shared space of Rawang and Homeless Guy. The Fisherman and Thongchai, on the other hand, delineate their claimed space with the mosquito net. No matter how close they become, Thongchai will always remain a guest in the house. In both films the use of European music and local pop music capture the diverging and fluid worlds the characters inhabit. Mozart sets the tone of Tsai's elegy of urban alienation, while the lush composition of French composers Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry highlights the multilayered symbolisms and metaphors of Aroonpheng's feature debut.

I Don't Want To Sleep Alone ends with a shot of Rawang, the Homeless Guy and the maid sharing the mattress as they float across the surface of the water at the building's basement. But in Manta Ray, Thongchai quickly realizes his displacement when the Fisherman later returns. He then ventures to the sea, and with his cries of lament, disappears into the waters.

Twelve years apart, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone and Manta Ray share in the long, uneasy conversation on modern-day contradictions ranging from national identity arising from globalizing processes of emerging ethnic- and religion-based nationhood to sordid conditions in countries that continue to propel labor migration to different cities across national borders. They offer no ready answers but the images the mirrors reflect are clear. While we see Rawang exercising the limited extent of his own agency, we cannot say this of Thongchai who remains powerless and voiceless as his people, drifting from border to border, like rubber slippers washed ashore on the beach.  

 – Gutierrez Mangansakan II