Ever since her debut “Chanthaly” (2012), Mattie Do’s world is visited by ghosts who strongly influence the destiny of every single character that crosses their path. They are moody, sometimes malicious and sometimes well-intentioned, but their presence is always intense. The relationship Do has to ghosts is complex and less influenced by the traditional set of beliefs in Laos, her home country, than by the tales she heard at home.
In her third feature “The Long Walk” shown at the Venice International Film Festival and currently screening in Toronto, Mattie Do goes a step further in her exploration of Laotian landscapes populated by ghosts and people alike, by setting a story in a retro-futurist dimension in which time stops playing its traditional role.
Asian Movie Pulse spoke to Mattie Do about the complexity of her visual language, of possessive ghosts, sanity and humans’ urge to correct own mistakes.
You have a very specific seal and your films are quite unique, nothing like anything we know from Laos or the surrounding countries.
To be honest, the reason why my films have that unique seal and are sort of brand different from what one might expect coming from Laos, is that they are not stereotypically Asian. I wasn’t a film person before, I was a ballerina, not really a good one, but still. One of the things that I’ve noticed when I started making films, were the expectations what the Asian films are. You would hear things like “Oh, that’s an Asian horror”. Well, Asian horror is huge, with many traditions related to different countries. Only by hearing that Asian movie was directly connected to genre, I was a bit offended because we are all super different. When the Lao people started shooting more films considering that during the regime change we didn’t have that many being made, my producers began reinvigorating the film movement by making romcoms and the like, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One of their trademarks was that they conveyed a very Asian feeling with bright lighting and locations, and beautiful pale-skinned girls with long black hair falling in love, having their hearts broken and crying all the time, which partly comes from the French influence. As you know, we were formerly Indochina and the French love that kind of emotional stuff. Lots of our films are imitating the neighboring countries like Thailand. Most of us can speak Thai very well because we share a border – we understand Thai, we speak Thai, we watch their films, and we started to imitate that style which made me think that, although we share similar culture and similar language, we needn’t make similar films. The same applies to the Korean or Japanese influence. Every time someone tries to make a genre movie in South-East Asia, you find something of Sadako from “The Ring”. That’s not how my mother, grandmother or my aunties spoke about ghosts.
You made a truly interesting symbiosis of things in your movie which is shot in a retro-futuristic style, and centres around the ghost story that doesn’t stick to standards. Your ghost whisperer is a ghost himself, but also a psychopath.
I don’t know if that was intentional for me, but we have to kind of think about the situation when someone lives in isolation, and their only companion communicating with them is a silent spirit. And this spirit is someone they feel responsible for. When you are this old man who’s confronted with so much loss and who has had a pretty traumatic life, someone left alone without anyone to communicate to, I imagined that that would be a person who had to be mentally disturbed. The interesting thing is that he is a psychopath and a monster who kills people, but he believes he’s helping them and is seriously convinced of doing his victims a favour. He never really realises how selfish he is until the very end when he can hear the ghost-girl finally speak. She is the one who tells him how selfish he is after 55 years spent together. They’ve been together in multiple realities and multiple timelines, and he never ever considered of letting her go since he was a little boy. He kept her to himself the same way he decided both as a little boy and a grown-up to keep his mother for himself.
I am obviously not saying that I am a psychopath, but I wish that I could change my past so that I could have done something differently. I don’t believe that I could have helped my mother to be alive, but for instance, one of the most traumatic experiences for me was when my husband, who is the scriptwriter of the film, and I had to put our dog down. He was the dog who in my debut “Chanthaly” (2012). He was 17 years old when he passed, and everybody kept on telling us how we had to do it, because he didn’t have a good life anymore. But even though he was frail, he seemed happy to be with us. And it wasn’t until the doctor told us he was in pain that we decided to put him down and to be honest, he tried to stay with us until the end. It was incredibly difficult to be the ones making that decision for him, as he can’t tell us what he wanted… he’s a dog. It was a major influence of how I made this film.
The Old Man can’t let go of his mother’s spirit.
No, because he wants to keep her spirit as a little boy to stay his companion. Every mistake and action he makes is connected to the fact that he cannot let go of his trauma and his mother. His whole life becomes pinned to this. He cannot let The Girl leave him, even after realizing what they did although she was very complicit, but she realizes it was a mistake. Honestly, I’m not really sure if he ever does… it’s hard to say. I would say that’s up to my actor and what he believes as a character.
The viewer is led to believe that there is another murderer, because The Old Man denies being the killer of all women whose spirits wander about.
For me, his denial of being the killer of many women is disturbing, because he claims possession of them. They are his objects, and he has no idea how horrible that is. It was a very intentional line that I made my husband put in the line he says to one of the ghosts: “You are not one of mine”. He is denying being responsible, because he keeps all the “souvenirs”. Of course, he killed them all, but his denial originates from his childhood. Regardless of whether he is aware of the action in this new timeline or not, he, in one form or the other, did do it.
You are choosing your cast personally.
I find people who I think would look good on camera or look similar to characters that I imagined, and I simply approach them. I found the little boy two days before shooting in a surrounding village. I also intentionally choose people who I think would be easy to work with in a group situation, and are responsible enough to come on time and be willing to try something new.
The electronic chip people have implanted in their arms – is that kind of connection between the real and alternate worlds?
The coding of the arm was more about the connection between the future to our underdeveloped country, and how we are so quick to embrace change and new development, and yet, although we are growing fast, there are certain things we can’t shed from our past. This is like the future being embedded into the past, and a thing you can’t remove, and they are plummeting towards the future the people can’t even understand or grasp, and yet they are going there. Come hell or high water, come fire or not.