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The Long Walk (Bor Mi Vanh Chark), the third feature from Mattie Do, a U.S.-born filmmaker of Laotian extraction, is a ghost story of sorts that moves between the past and the present. Like the director’s previous films, Dearest Sister and Chanthaly, it combines genre elements with an exploration of the world of spirits, of society in Laos in general and the differences between the city and the countryside.
This good-looking feature, shot in arid yellows and dull greens, premiered in the Giornate degli Autori section of the Venice Film Festival ahead of its bow in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema strand. But at two hours and with a narrative that’s frequently hard to follow because it seems allergic to explicit exposition, it won’t travel far beyond the festival circuit. That said, it could become an Oscar contender, at least on paper, given that Do’s Dearest Sister became the Southeast Asian country’s first-ever submission in 2017; this Walk could follow in its footsteps.
A kind-looking man with a face sculpted by age (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, from Dearest Sister) lives in the near future in the Laotian countryside, where most of the technological advances haven’t really penetrated. An exception is a kind of Apple Watch that can be used for payments and for being located by the authorities at all times and that’s inserted under the skin of the forearm. (In terms of production design, all these futuristic gadgets are extremely low-fi.) He’s frequently accompanied by an ashen-faced and mute girl (Noutnapha Soydara), who, it emerges, has been his companion for long walks for the past 50 years and who is actually dead.
A parallel story involves a cute young boy (Por Silatsa) who finds the body of a young woman (Soydara again) in the jungle, covered in blood. Is she the same girl? As suggested by the way the film keeps cutting back and forth between the two stories, are we looking at something that’s happening simultaneously? Or is the girl a kind of ghost who appears to different people at different times? Perhaps the boy’s storyline is actually set 50 years earlier, when the girl died? Since everything happens in the countryside, where progress has hardly arrived except for the weird under-the-skin technology that seems to be obligatory for adults — but maybe not for kids? — it’s hard to tell.
The screenplay, by Do’s regular scripter, Christopher Sean Larsen, certainly doesn’t help in this regard, and neither does the director’s tendency to leave too much unsaid in the mise-en-scene and editing. Ghost stories — and especially those aimed at art house audiences — might benefit from a little ambiguity and a certain poetic strangeness. But it’s a problem when the story becomes nearly impossible to follow for long stretches of time.
Who is the dead woman that two government agents are looking for? (Her chip has been ruthlessly removed from her forearm.) Why are they insisting that the old man, who, it is rumored, can communicate with ghosts, help them? Is the man, who likes to hang out at a cemetery of sorts, indeed a kind of guardian of recently deceased souls who haven’t yet found their place and are waiting to move on? And what does the little boy, whose mother (Chansamone Inoudom) is suffering from tuberculosis, have to do with the older man, whom he finally meets thanks to the intercession of the mute girl? Theirs is a meeting that, because the narrative hasn’t been very clear in terms of timelines, could create even more confusion. Because how could two characters meet if they are indeed living 50 years apart … unless some kind of ghost magic is somehow involved?
Unlike the work of a filmmaker like Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), from neighboring Thailand, who is a master at exploiting and even stretching the metaphorical potential of ghosts and spectral presences, the screenplay and mise-en-scene here don’t offer enough for the viewer to hang on to until the narrative mists start to clear and the thematic undercurrents snap into place. Too slow and arty for pure genre lovers and too obscure for art house patrons, this film finds itself in a kind of no man’s land in terms of its potential audience. A few stray ideas, such as a commentary on the uselessness of foreign aid and NGOs, which don’t understand the terrain and the locals’ needs, are half-heartedly introduced and then never developed. So why introduce them at all?
That said, things do start to become a little more comprehensible about an hour in, which for a large part of the audience might be long after they have left the theater, changed the channel or clicked over to their favorite episode of Friends. Indeed, there’s a moment in the film’s second half in which the protagonist himself wonders out loud whether he’s dead, and it could be taken as a meta commentary on the film’s impenetrable tangle of ideas as much as a rare cheap laugh in a feature that’s mostly somber and very serious.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Giornate degli Autori)
Production companies: Lao Art Media, Screen Division, Aurora Media, 108 Media
Cast: Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, Por Silatsa, Noutnapha Soydara, Vilouna Phetmany, Chansamone Inoudom
Director: Mattie Do
Screenplay: Christopher Sean Larsen
Producers: Mattie Do, Christopher Sean Larsen, Douangmany Soliphanh, Annick Mahnert, Justin Deimen, Abhi Rastogi
Cinematography: Matthew Whitcomb Macar
Production design: Thana Maykaoumput, Chatchai Chaiyon
Editing: Zohar Michel
Music: Anthony Weeden
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