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September 05, 2019

The Long Walk

long walk 2.jpg

Bor Mi Vanh Chark
Mattie Do - 2019
Lao Art Media

It is quite possible that I may have mis-read Mattie Do's third film as a westerner with limited personal exposure to Southeast Asian life and culture. But I'm going to dive in anyways. For those unfamiliar with Mattie Do, she is the first female director from the country officially known as the Loa People's Democratic Republic, and one of the handful of filmmakers in country that has had no filmmaking infrastructure. He previous film, Dearest Sister was the first film from her country to be entered for consideration for the Foreign Language Oscar. Following film festival exposure, Dearest Sister has been available through the genre streaming channel, Shudder. The Long Walk premiered at the Venice Film Festival, as part of the Giornate degli Autori. The Lao title literally translates, per Ms. Do, as "Never a day apart/separated".

The Long Walk is a Lao ghost story. It will no doubt frustrate those who insist on exposition every ten minutes or so to explain what is going on. Those looking for jump scares will have to find them elsewhere. The pacing is languid. The horror, such as it is, is muted. The film takes place in a rural area, where past and present (or is it present and future?), folk beliefs and futuristic technology, and humans and ghosts share the same space. Probably not deliberately, but Do's film is closer to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee than to the kinds of films associated with "Asian Extreme".

I am making the connection between the younger Lao filmmaker with the better known Thai based not only on the films, but my brief time in Thailand. Both cultures share similarities with the presence of spirit houses, those small shrines that resemble small houses on a platform, a home for a protective spirit, where small food offerings are placed. There is also the influence of Buddhism, and government of a kind under the direction of the designated village headman. The animism in The Long Walk is to be found geographically, in a part of a forest that has become a special burial ground. There is a pervasive sense of time standing still, of people living the way have for decades, with anything indicating modernity more of an intrusion rather than convenience.

An unnamed man, referred to as the Old Man, gets by selling parts of an abandoned motorcycle. He is called by the local police based on his reputation to communicate with the dead, in hopes of finding the body of a missing woman. Both the old man's use of a microchip implanted in his arm as a means of telling time and conducting financial transactions, and his particular spiritual abilities are treated as nothing out of the ordinary. The main narrative concerns the shifting relationship between the old man, a young boy and a silent young woman. The old man sees his mission as delivering women from physical pain, and burying them in a hidden area, counter to the Buddhist tradition of cremation. It is uncertain if the souls of these women are truly at rest. Do and her screenwriter, husband Christopher Larsen, offer partial explanations through their characters. There is a happy ending, but also plenty of ambiguity.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 5, 2019 07:49 AM