Laotian first and only female director, Mattie Do, rewards those who patiently follows the tangled story in her latest feature, The Long Walk, written by her frequent collaborator, Christopher Larsen. Her film dives deep into a rural Laos village, intertwines a chilling yet barely scary ghost story with time-travel tropes, and presents it with an art-house sensitivity. The connection between one element and the others isn’t always bleak and the whole plot demands commitment as well as full, undivided attention; but, when the dots are connected, the rewards paid off.
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The Long Walk follows an old Laotian man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) living in a remote house in a rural area—miles away from a town marked with virtual transaction using implanted chip. Living as a hermit, people often consider him as a shamanic figure who is able to communicate with spirits. On another occasion, the film also follows a quiet boy (Por Solatsa) living a rather mundane life with his hot-headed father and her gravely ill mother. The only thing that connects the old hermit and the lonesome child is a mute ghost of a road accident victim (Noutnapha Soydara) that wanders off in the vicinity. Meanwhile, a woman from the nearby town goes missing and authorities begin a small, almost ineffective search party. Timeline isn’t always crystal clear and coherence isn’t always a thing the story showcases explicitly. However, a bizarre link between the present and the past is about to unravel for those giving it a go. At the same moment, an elusive conundrum that transcends time and space reveals a grim anguish too harrowing to feel.
In a Hollywood-style story, this kind of film would be a psychedelic fantasy adventure with a touch of melodrama here and there. And yet, Do doesn’t intend to make this any easier to follow immediately. She demands patience and open eyes to connect the breadcrumbs that she obscurely scatters amidst the face of death—a theme The Long Walk holds dear. Death is dark and grim; whatever follows it couldn’t be less gruesome and Do ensures that it stays that way. However, ghastly figures has never been the most horrifying element in this film, even when a party of ghosts parading in a cemetery that the hermit often visits, there’s no sense of dread upon their apparitions. What scares most, to the film’s perspective, is poverty that leads to death and exploitations. Commentaries to the totalitarian government is shown through the portrayal of chip implants; while the country’s poverty has been a subject of exploitations by NGO. The death that triggers the whole event in this film is a result of utter poverty and that’s what Do attempts to slowly convey.
Do’s ambitious narrative might not always align with the storytelling front. The story revolves in circle but it’s only obvious after at least an hour has passed in real life (around 50 years gap in the film, though). Only after the excruciating hour, the ghost story—that is barely a horror—invites audiences to find a concealed story about severed love and regret that looms over the past and the present. It’s the kind of story that refuses to die and moves on with life, just like the thematic focal point of the film. The Long Walk is elusive, heartbreaking and compelling for those who have the patience to follow.