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Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy as the Old Man in The Long Walk, in close-up, looking grim Photo: Yellow Veil Pictures

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Mattie Do’s sci-fi ghost story The Long Walk defines a whole new wave of horror

Her genre mashup — serial-killer story, time-travel movie, and arthouse drama — starts quiet, then goes for broke

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Lao horror director Mattie Do makes films where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is permeable, but the people who pass through it often pay unimaginable costs for the privilege. In her debut feature Chanthaly (which she’s posted on YouTube), the title character can communicate with her dead mother, but only when she forgoes the heart medication that keeps her alive. Do’s second film, Dearest Sister (available on Shudder), features a young woman who begins to see the spirits of people who are about to die, but only after she develops a degenerative eye disease. Engaging with the ghosts turns her into a vessel for winning lottery numbers, but it also sends her into debilitating seizures. The Long Walk, Do’s third collaboration with her screenwriter husband Christopher Larsen, gives its lead spirit medium the most complicated risk-reward analysis of all. Taken as a loose trilogy, the films do nothing less than invent a Lao national horror cinema.

In case it wasn’t already clear, The Long Walk is not an adaptation of the beloved 1979 Stephen King novel published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. Do’s film centers on a character known only as the Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy), a hermit who lives on the outskirts of a small village in Laos, subsisting by selling scrap metal. Fifty years ago, when he was a young boy, the Old Man witnessed a woman’s death in the jungle, and her ghost (Noutnapha Soydara) has accompanied him on his daily walks ever since. He doesn’t just conjure her spirit for company — with her help, he can travel 50 years into the past to intervene in his own unhappy childhood. The changes he influences in his past reverberate into his present — a shattered glass cabinet here, a trail of bodies there. As he struggles to get a grip on the consequences of his time travel, the film becomes more critical of his motives.

Do reveals the inner workings of the plot slowly, and for long stretches, it’s difficult to place the action in time or space. An early scene at the dusty street market where the Old Man hawks copper wire sees him scanning a vendor’s phone with his arm. A microchip embedded in his skin accepts the payment, and the vendor mocks him for his outdated technology. It’s a disorienting moment — Wait, what year is this? — and Do continues to layer it with additional questions. There’s a bit of David Lynch’s opacity in her willingness to show something striking that the audience won’t understand at first, and a bit of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the way she luxuriates in negative space and atmospherics. Unlike those directors, though, Do embraces the simple, visceral pleasures of genre cinema. The first third of The Long Walk feels discursive and dreamlike, but once the pieces start coming together, the film picks up momentum, and the dream turns into a nightmare.

A young Lao boy stands with his back to the camera, looking at a pile of detritus in a dark, cluttered room in Mattie Do’s The Long Walk Photo: Yellow Veil Pictures

The patient characterization of the Old Man reflects the way the film gradually opens itself up. At first, Do and Larsen present him as a cipher, and his behavior seems bizarre and enigmatic. Once The Long Walk introduces its time-travel component, his motivations begin to come into focus. When the Old Man was a boy, his mother died of a painful lung disease, and his father abandoned the family farm to go to work in the capital. Watching his mother suffer in her last days radicalized the Old Man, and motivated him to provide assisted-suicide services for women in the village, though it’s unsettlingly unclear whether the women he ushers to peaceful deaths actually asked for his assistance. Subsequent trips through the time portal both reshape and reframe his actions, and a fiery climax forces him to reckon with the life, or more accurately, lives he’s led.

In a fascinating 2020 interview with Thirteenth Floor, Do called The Long Walk her “quiet, supernatural science fiction, time traveling, serial killer, Asian arthouse film.” The freedom with which she moves between these genres helps give the film much of its power. Where a truer sci-fi version of this story might become obsessed with the mechanic that makes its time travel possible, Do trusts that her audience will simply accept it as a plot point, and take the results in stride. A typical crime flick might fixate on the whodunit aspects of what befell the woman who dies in the jungle, or the noodle-shop owner who turns up dead in the Old Man’s house early in the film. That never happens. For a movie with such a complex plot, The Long Walk remains staunchly committed to the vibes.

To the degree that The Long Walk embraces any one genre, it’s a ghost story. As in Do’s two previous films, emissaries from the spirit world both kickstart the film’s action, and act as a real force in the lives of its still-mortal characters. That’s thanks in part to Do’s distinctly Lao perspective. “We’re still very traditional in a lot of ways,” she told Senses of Cinema in 2017. “We still believe in possession, we still believe in hauntings, we still believe in rebirth and reincarnation. If I was to say that I was being haunted, no one would say, ‘No, you’re not.’ They would ask for more details. They would believe me right away.” That’s all evident in the strikingly no-nonsense way ghosts appear onscreen in her films. In The Long Walk, the police don’t think the Old Man is crazy for talking to spirits. They ask him to help them contact one.

A young Lao boy and his ghost companion walk along a dirt path through the forest in Mattie Do’s The Long Walk Photo: Yellow Veil Pictures

The so-called “elevated horror” movement, typified by films like A24’s The Witch and Hereditary, has become an established force in genre cinema, with its own set of tropes and conventions. What’s fascinating about Do’s work, and The Long Walk in particular, is how she pulls from that tradition while making something that feels entirely new. The Long Walk is rife with simmering tension, complex emotional drama, deliberate pacing, gorgeous cinematography, and striking, horrific images. At the same time, it doesn’t especially resemble The Babadook, Saint Maud, or any of its other “elevated” peers. That has a lot to do with Do’s Lao heritage, and at least as much to do with her inspiring go-for-broke attitude. It’s a film that initially scans as minimalist, but that slowly reveals itself to be wildly, vividly maximalist. It asks for a little patience, and in return, it rewards it handsomely. It’s easily one of the finest horror films of the year thus far.

Do is widely considered the first Lao horror director, as well as the first female director to make a film in Laos. That’s given her the unique opportunity to shape a national cinema in her own image. Her movies are alive with the clash of the old and the new, of ancient beliefs and futuristic technology, of idyllic landscapes and city streets choked with honking tuk-tuks. In the best way possible, it feels like she’s making it up as she goes along. The Long Walk makes a compelling argument that viewers should go along with her.

The Long Walk is in limited theatrical release and is available for rental or purchase on digital streaming sites like Google Play and YouTube.

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