Directed by Mattie Do
Incredibly, Chanthaly is the first horror film ever made in Laos and the only film in the country’s history to be directed by a woman. It’s also only the ninth film ever made within the Marxist confines of the South Asian nation and one of the few films that isn’t just anti-capitalism propaganda. With that in mind, it’s much easier to forgive any potential shortcomings in production value, but director Mattie Do has managed to craft an affecting family drama set against a supernatural backdrop.
Chanthaly is a teenager unable to resist her father’s rule, forbidden to leave the house because of a heart condition that leaves her heavily medicated. There are numerous side effects, one of which is a deep-seated desire to rebel; and Chanthaly suffers from powerful hallucinations, causing her to believe that she’s seeing her mother, whom the father claims died in childbirth. She becomes convinced that the hallucination is really an apparition, causing Chanthaly to become suspicious and distrusting of her father and ever more curious about this mysterious figure.
The initial encounters with the ghostly figure are fairly well executed if not somewhat derivative of earlier J-horror, depicting the mother, in one particular scene, shrouded and veiled in white as she appears and reappears as Chanthaly turns the lights of her bedroom on and off. There’s also a great point-of-view shot where Chanthaly’s supposed mother crawls slowly and deliberately up the bed as she stares intensely at the camera. There’s no score to speak of, allowing the subtle sound design to accentuate these moments instead of overselling the shot. This restraint is impressive and shows that Mattie Do, again making her first ever horror film, understands that silence can make an impression just as much or even more than a piano stab.
The story begins to stray from these effective moments once the figure reveals herself, leading to Chanthaly being able to cross over to the other side, finally giving her the chance to escape the antiseptic walls of her home. As a result, however, Chanthaly becomes trapped in a world she can’t escape that doesn’t extend beyond the threshold of her doorstep. Once this happens, the story is still engrossing, but Chanthaly begins to move out of the world of horror and into a story about her family with only some elements of the supernatural left intact.
If anything, once the ghost story staging wears off, as if Mattie Do herself was temporarily suffering from haunting hallucinations, a great drinking game could be made of the film’s scenes where Namkhong beer is predominantly shown within the frame. The product placement is far from subtle but not jarring, and the making of Chanthaly simply could not have happened without it. Never too distracting, if this kind of presence is required to help continue getting horror films made in Laos, it’s a necessary evil that Do and other filmmakers will happily endure.
One positive is how easy it is for Chanthaly to be shown in Laos, simply because there just isn’t enough original material to go around. The film is certainly good enough to inspire other determined Laotians to pick up a camera and start shooting.
Interestingly, the questionable legality of telling a story about ghosts in violation of Marxist doctrine forced Do to shoot a self-contained genre film where everything could take place without the government’s knowledge of what exactly they were shooting. Filming openly in the streets is probably dangerous, and this forced way of making a movie will lend itself well to the haunted house genre and darker horror films about going mad from isolation. Chanthaly will probably not be seen by many, but the few that do can bond together to form a new collective of artists in Laos that may wind up having a more powerful voice thanks to Mattie Do and her efforts and the fine performances of the actors - most of whom had never acted a day in their lives.
3 out of 5