On paper, Mattie Do’s The Long Walk is a groundbreaking film: it’s the first film from Laos to screen theatrically in the U.S., and it’s made by the country’s first (and apparently only) woman filmmaker, who also happens to be the only director in Laos making genre films. But even if you didn’t know any of that, The Long Walk is truly a standout film — it’s eerie, poetic, and absolutely unique.
Written by Christopher Larsen, The Long Walk introduces us to a never-named old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, whose understated performance carries the film) making a meager living scavenging scrap metal from the jungle around his village. Right from the start the movie makes sure we know this rural setting isn’t what we assume it is; for one thing, everyone has a microchip implanted in their arm that functions much like a smart phone. Our man’s got an ageing model, though. “Ancient technology, ancient man,” mutters the shopkeeper who begrudgingly buys his bags of old wires and motorbike parts.
There’s another establishing point to layer into this not-so-simple tale, and that’s the fact that the man can see ghosts. When the cops question him about a local woman who’s gone missing, we figure he’s a suspect, until one of them cuts to the chase: it’s rumoured that the old man can talk to spirits, and they’d like his help figuring out what happened to her. He refuses, but the spirit thing is true; though The Long Walk unfurls its plot details with slow-burn precision, we soon understand that the silent young woman (Noutnapha Soydara) who frequently appears to him is a ghost. As a boy (Por Silatsa) he found her near death at the side of the road, gasping “Please don’t leave me alone here.” He didn’t, and after she passed, she stuck around.
The third big element in The Long Walk is time travel. There are traditional flashbacks, which show us the boy living in what we’ve come to know as the old man’s house with his mother (Chanthamone Inoudome) and father (Vithaya Sombath). They’re farmers, struggling to get by in a world where an American company swoops in offering aid… in the form of solar panels, not the tractor they desperately need. (Along with the microchips and the supersonic jets that scream overhead, the film is sprinkled with technology that feels more intrusive than anything else.) But one day — apparently through his contact with the ghost girl, though it’s never quite explained, and it doesn’t need to be — the old man realises he’s able to slip into his past and interact with his younger self. It doesn’t take long before he decides to use this newfound ability to help his mother, who suffered an illness that caused her agonizingly drawn-out death. Tinkering with the past is dangerous business — as anyone who’s seen Back to the Future (or any time-travel movie) well knows — and The Long Walk’s take on it is particularly disturbing. The more the old man tries to play saviour to his beloved mother, the more his reality turns into an extremely grim, self-created nightmare.
As The Long Walk’s grisly puzzle pieces come together, it becomes clear just how carefully plotted its story is, not to mention how full of perfectly considered details — like the glass-windowed cabinet in the man’s home that cracks in the altered past and comes to symbolise his increasingly fractured present. It also quietly digs into emotionally complex themes that enhance the twisted journey at its centre, including the importance of burials and death rituals, not just for mourners left behind, but for the dead themselves. And perhaps most poignantly, it examines the deep toll that loneliness and regret can take on a person whose moral compass is ticking its way toward darkness. It’s an impressive, haunting work. This may be the first of Mattie Do’s films to reach the U.S. — but let’s hope there are many more to come.