A ghost helps an old Laotian man travel through time in Mattie Do’s haunting third feature…
Mattie Do, known as the only female Laotian horror director, returns with her third feature The Long Walk, following on from her previous works Chanthaly and Dearest Sister, both of which enjoyed great success on the international festival circuit. An ambitious yet intimate mix of horror, science fiction and philosophy, the film sees her working again with her husband and screenwriter Christopher Larson and editor Zohar Michel, and was originally released in 2019, playing Venice, Toronto and other festivals to great acclaim.
The film opens in the future in a remote Laotian village, where an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) lives by himself and survives by selling bits and pieces of scrap, known by the other locals to have the ability to talk to the dead. Walking home, the old man is followed by the ghost of a young girl who died by the side of the road (Noutnapha Soydara), who gives him the chance to travel back in time fifty years to visit himself as a young boy (Por Silatsa). This coincides with the time when his mother died of lung disease, pushing the old man to confront the events which shaped his later life.
There’s a great deal more to the story, though The Long Walk is a film that it’s best to go into knowing as little as possible, as while not relying on plot twists as such, it does take many unexpected turns along the way. The narrative is very well-constructed, and takes a more mature and searching approach to time travel than other genre films, with the past, present and future intertwining and walking the same road together in a way which patiently builds towards an emotionally devastating conclusion. It’s a fascinating marriage of the supernatural and science fiction, and is all the better for its ambiguity and lack of artificial tension, meditating on time and existence, and dealing with themes of guilt, regret, acceptance, and ultimately hubris.
The Long Walk is resolutely enigmatic, leaning into arthouse territory, and does require patience from the viewer, with a slow, considered pace and long dialogue-free stretches that are carried by some great performances by the uniformly excellent cast. At the same time, Do also impresses through the way in which she combines this with the genre elements, and the film is still very much a horror, with plenty of unnerving and full-blooded scenes. Though Do avoids jump scares or anything too obvious, her ghosts being a mix of shadowy lurkers and silent, often tragic figures, the film has an ominous, creepy atmosphere from start to finish, with gory and shocking moments scattered throughout.
The film also benefits from a strong sense of place and culture, Do making great use of the local scenery and really making it a key part of the story, in particular its remoteness, giving it the sense of taking place in a limbo of sorts – the tall buildings of a modern city are glimpsed in the distance at the end of the road, though are never reached or even referenced. Matthew Macar’s cinematography is beautiful throughout, whether capturing the sun-bleached, dusty road, candlelit forest groves or the darkness inside old wooden houses, and this both adds to the atmosphere while working to subtly blur the lines between the different time periods.
Mattie Do goes from strength to strength, and The Long Walk is arguably her best work to date. By turns thoughtful, moving and sinister, the film expertly combines genres, weaving a complex, highly personal tale, and it should appeal to fans of horror, arthouse and foreign language cinema alike.