“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” says William Faulkner. It’s an idea that gets a vigorous workout in Laotian director Mattie Do’s third feature, “The Long Walk.” The followup to her acclaimed 2016 horror entry “Dearest Sister” finds Laos’ first and only female film director taking a risky leap forward to tell the story of a middle-aged Laotian farmer living a life of regret following the death of his mother and the ghost who can help him set things right. That’s the most efficacious way to boil down this delicately rendered, languidly paced juggling act, a tale that manages to stay firmly grounded while still looping in time travel, a ghost, a serial killer and the occasional hypersonic aircraft.
If Do’s ambition sometimes gets ahead of her ability to tell the story in clean, straightforward lines, it’s a small price to pay to be whisked away to a country still mysterious to Western audiences by a director using local concerns to address collective truths about guilt and redemption. A rare film from the slowly developing Laotian cinema industry, “The Long Walk” deserves its place in the Venice Days lineup, although beyond that, it will be a difficult sell. Leaning on the story’s genre elements is the best strategy for a heady drama that could attract audiences up for a challenge.
Do was born in Los Angeles before relocating to Laos, the Southeast Asian nation with a film industry so nascent that “Dearest Sister” was only the 13th hometown feature in the country’s history. This makes her thoughts on the socio-economic and cultural climate in Laos especially valuable. In “The Long Walk,” she displays a local’s feel for a touch-and-go rural existence where the rhythms are gentle but the pressure to keep food on the table is unrelenting.
That pressure, in Do’s opinion, will continue for a long time. Half the film takes place 50 years in the future, where we meet an unnamed old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) who has never gotten over the death of his mother, a long-ago tragedy that triggered a lifetime of bad choices that have left him lonely, isolated and regretful. Our introduction to him includes a striking shot of a government-issued computer display embedded in his forearm. It’s not only a remarkably effective juxtaposition of old and new but also a profoundly depressing argument that 50 years from now, Laos’ Marxist government will still ignore its underclass of subsistence farmers who survive by stripping bikes to sell for parts while enormous, looming skyscrapers give nary a thought to their existence.
These near-future scenes are combined with those from the present day where the old man is the boy (Por Silatsa), struggling to care for his ailing mother (Chansamone Inoudom), whose impending death will burden him with a lifetime of unnecessary guilt. Connecting the boy and the old man across the decades is not only the specter of their deceased mother but an actual specter as well. Early in the film, the boy finds a dead woman (Noutnapha Soydala) in the thick Laotian brush, a woman whose ghost will be his silent companion for the next half century.
Do is attempting to take disparate genres and various homegrown and universal concerns and meld them into a spiritual, emotional and intermittently violent whole that unfolds in a cinematically untapped environment. If she and editor Zohar Michel struggle to make it all come together, it’s a struggle worth witnessing, especially when Do focuses on the redemptive journey of her two-in-one main character.
The script, by Christopher Seán Larsen, keeps most everyone opaque, sometimes frustratingly so, but he knows how to use genre tropes to serve character and theme. The old man is so guilt-ridden over his mother’s death that he euthanizes sick local women, buries them and keeps a souvenir finger wrapped in cloth. When the police come calling after a noodle shop owner with dementia goes missing, it leads to an unlikely friendship with the missing woman’s daughter (Chansamone Inoudom). Soon the old man will begin to wake up to the choices he’s made, allowing “The Long Walk” to transition from an exploration of the paralyzing effects of guilt to something more liberating and powerful: finding the strength to let go.
Revealing her true purpose in the story, the ghost sends the old man back in time to revisit his sick mother. Even if the old man’s actions surprise us in the most heartbreaking way, it doesn’t deny the human certainty that guilt, especially when suffered by an innocent child and carried into adulthood, can only be alleviated by absolving yourself of blame and letting go of things you cannot change. It takes a while and Do, voluntary and involuntary, makes us work for it, but this unique Laotian filmmaker finally convinces us that moving on is just as important to the living as it is to the dead.
Do coaxes strong performances from her small Laotian cast, most notably Chanthalungsy, a terrific Toshiro Mifune lookalike whose long face is one of dignity brought low by the weight of sorrow. Behind-the-scenes contributors overachieve although Anthony Weeden’s tense score is often intrusive.