The US-born Laotian filmmaker Mattie Do is back on the festival circuit with her third feature “The Long Walk”. This arthouse-genre hybrid premiered at Venice Days sidebar of 76th Venice International Film Festival before its North American premiere at Toronto and, having in mind Do’s reputation for “Chantaly” (2012) and “Dearest Sister” (2016), it will travel beyond that both regarding the “regular” film festivals (especially those “late night” sections) and more specific genre-oriented ones.
As her previous movies, it is a ghost story of sorts that follows some genre conventions while also examining the (contemporary) Laotian society. The plot is realized through two timelines separated by 50 years. It opens in the near future with an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungs) living in the rural area, scavenging motorcycle parts for money. There is something sinister about his lonely existence, especially with a notion that there is a serial killer lurking in the area and him being one of the last persons who saw the latest victim alive. The plot twists when the dead woman’s daughter (Vilouna Phetmany) and the police come to him asking for help: apparently, he can speak to the ghosts. One of them, a young woman (the first-timer Noutnapha Soydara), actually follows him…
The other timeline is set in the recent past, with a boy (Por Silatsa) finding a dead young woman (Soydara, again) in the swamp. It might be his first contact with death, but it will not be the only one: his mother (Chanthamone Inoudome) is ill with no chance of recovery, while his father is largely absent, angry or drunk and the small vegetable garden around the house needs tending to. How are those two timelines connected, it is for us to see in the two hours of the running time.
The script by Do’s regular screenwriter Christopher Larsen is meticulously constructed and it moves in circles of mystery, offering the viewer a fair share of red herrings in the shape of recurring details (the same ghost, the same house and some of the mise-en-scene solutions are in both storylines) that still have to find the place in the story. They eventually do, but the feeling is a bit confusing for the first half of the film so patience is strongly advised.
The understated science fiction bits and pieces (payments are handled through microchips tattooed on the forearm of each person, supersonic aircrafts are flying over the area and the motorbikes are designed in the futuristic fashion even though their function is basically the same) here to highlight the class conflict in nominally socialist Laotian society, but they are not used to their maximum extent. And combined with similarly frivolously used time travelling and ghost aspects aim to add something to the spiritual dimension, but actually accumulate the confusion. With an additional circle in the end and a couple of plot twists, the feeling is that Mattie Do tried to be too clever for her own good, no matter how good of a storyteller she is, as she demonstrated in her previous works. But the film is still intriguing and thought-provoking.
One of Do’s fortes is her work with the actors, especially with one of her “Dearest Sister” veteran Yannawoutthi Chanthalungs, whose character is the most complex of the bunch and also harbours the most of the film’s mystery. His acting is compellingly understated and his face shows the stoicism necessary to endure the hardships of life. Vilouna Phetmany and Noutnapha Soydara are similarly gentle and vulnerable in quite different roles and Por Silatsa’s restrained acting works well with the film.
Visually interesting, shot in saturated contrast colours (green and yellow for the exteriors, dark brown and grey under the dim light for the interior), well acted and narratively unorthodox, “The Long Walk” is a film worth the time spent on watching it. The film also profits from the time taken for contemplating about it. It might not be the peak of Do’s career so far, but it is certainly something new and fresh.