Starring Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, Vilouna Phetmany, Por Silatsa
Written by Christopher Larsen
Directed by Mattie Do
“Was there something I could have done differently?” That’s what I asked myself when I lost a very close friend several years ago. Looking back, the signs were there that something was wrong, perhaps I could have intervened. Perhaps I could’ve comforted them more. Death itself is inevitable, but maybe I could have done more than I did, which was…nothing. It’s the same question at the heart of Mattie Do’s third film, The Long Walk. A genre-straddler with a sci-fi lean, Do’s latest is far more unique than its logline sounds: in Laos, an old recluse learns that the ghost who’s been following him for years (“haunting” isn’t quite the right term for their relationship) has the ability to cross timelines, including decades prior to the time of his mother’s death. At it’s core, it’s admittedly time-travel story. But there’s no hoverboards, no giant gray bunny suits or wormholes, and certainly no suicidal Bill Murray. What lies within the subgenre parameters is a measured tale of the indifferent, unforgiving circle of life.
In the follow-up to her 2016 horror hit Dearest Sister, Do challenges with a story of regret and letting go. Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy stars as a nameless old man who has lived a long, hard life. His hands are callused, his face worn, his home modest. He walks to a nearby village daily to sell junk to the local scrap dealer, the money from which feeds him for the day. The film takes place in 2000 and 2065, respectively, as evidenced by a futuristic microchip and holographic imprint that each human– including the old man– wears on their wrist. On these long walks to and from the vendor, he is often accompanied by a mute young woman (Noutnapha Soydara) who has been following him since he was a child who discovered and buried her dead body. That’s right, she’s a ghost. The woman isn’t menacing at all, she merely smiles and nods and enjoys his conversation. He talks about his mother often; she died painfully ill, coughing up blood for months until she drew her last breath. One day, the old man discovers that his dead companion can move across time as she pleases, and he asks her to bring back to his childhood so that he may see his mother again. She obliges, and it’s off to the races from there as he tries to interact with his then-living mother and change the course of their lives. The Butterfly Effect unfolds, and he’s forced to reckon with the consequences of each ensuing decision he makes.
Laos’ first (and sole) woman director has evolved in her storytelling, with The Long Walk a step up from the already outstanding Dearest Sister. Its of a similar premise to Pet Sematary but instead of sour burial ground, it’s the choices that can sour once their consequences play out. Some might bristle at the languid pacing, and it does take its time getting to where it needs to be. But Do’s patience allows the story to unfold with gravity, rather than jumping from aftereffect to aftereffect. Zohar Michel does some heavy lifting in the editing bay to keep the pace from reaching a standstill, but the back-and-forth jumps do cause some initial confusion as to which era we’re in at the beginning of any given scene. That said, the film shows more risk-taking than Do’s previous, and it often pays off with heartbreaking moments and gasps from the audience.
For all of her creative growth, Do also maintains the best elements that lace her previous work. Strategic natural light bathes her characters and subtly highlights their surroundings, whether they be a dust-filled, unkempt living room or a secluded, sunny dirt road. Not many filmmakers exhibit such a strong ability to elicit dread during broad daylight. Do’s confidence in her actors to hold frame results in stellar, understated performances. Both Noutnapha Soydara (the Girl) and Por Silatsa (the Boy) say everything without saying much at all; the former’s character is mute by design and the latter “doesn’t like to say much.” But their reactions to the Old Man’s increasingly worse decisions are no less palpable. Chanthalungsy implants a lifetime of pain, contrition, and self-isolation into his role, a grizzled, wisened Danny Torrance dealing with the effects of the life-changing events of his childhood. His arc is a reverberant one, taking the audience on a journey and teaching a harsh lesson about mistakes and their necessity.
The Long Walk is for patient sci-fi fans only; it doesn’t need racing Deloreans to ruminate on the dangers of messing with the past. Mattie Do is as confident in her actors as she is in her storytelling abilities, which makes her latest a slow-brewing but thought-provoking gem.