The Long Walk (Bor Mi Vanh Chark) opens with the sound of the past being disinterred. An Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) is in the jungle digging up a moped which, covered in rust, dirt and leafy undergrowth, has clearly been there for decades – as has the human skeleton, overlooked or at least ignored by this ageing amateur archaeologist.
There are layers of history in this place, buried in the foliage and the soil – and while the remoteness of the setting (a rural backwater of Laos) might make time seem to stand still here, it quickly becomes clear that this old man inhabits not some unspecified past, but the future. For as soon as he emerges from the jungle with the antique moped, he checks the time on the lit display from a microchip implanted in his wrist – a high-tech device which we shall soon learn is of an old-fashioned, ‘vintage’ make which marks his age (“Ancient technology, ancient man”, someone observes), even as rocket jets fly overhead with a sonic boom. When the Old Man is joined on his long walk to the nearest village by a mute woman in a dress (Noutnapha Soydara), we see once more that time is operating unconventionally in this place. For the Old Man asks his companion: “How long have we been walking this road? Is it 50 years already?” Yet while the Man is old, the woman – a Girl really, and called that in the film’s closing credits – is far too young to have been making this journey for two decades, let alone five.
Mattie Do is not only Laos’ first female horror director, but the communist nation’s first female director, period. The horror certainly continues in The Long Walk, which, like Do’s previous features Chanthaly (2013) and Dearest Sister (2016), is a ghost story, while also flirting with psychokiller tropes. Yet as its prologue shows, this is also a film preoccupied with time – in all its continuities, clashes and contradictions. That road along which the Old Man walks every day with the Girl to get from his secluded farmhouse to the local village is in fact a set of parallel paths, connecting the living to the dead and the past to the present. For while the Old Man’s ageless, (mostly-)invisible-to-others companion is the ghost of a young pregnant woman whom, as a Boy (Por Silatsa) 50 years earlier, he had discovered dying in the jungle after she crashed her moped, the film cuts between scenes of the Boy and the Old Man, so that we, along with the Girl, get to observe which childhood experiences have made this man who he is today.
As the film travels its twisted trajectory, this two-way traffic of past and present becomes ever more complicated. For when young Lina (Vilouna Phetmany) comes from Ventiane to look for her missing mother, and the Old Man, renowned locally for his powers to commune with the dead, reluctantly agrees to help Lina and the police find the missing woman’s body, he is reminded of his own Mother (Chanthamone Inoudome), who was taken away from him by illness when he was a Boy, and for whose benign, loving presence the lonely Old Man still longs. So he gets the Girl, for whom time moves in mysterious ways, to take him to his 50-years-younger self and to change his own destiny – except that even the best of intentions (and the Old Man’s intentions are too selfish to be the best) can have unwanted, tragic consequences.
“If you’d sold this bike to me all at once, I’d have given you a million kip,” complains the village scrap dealer to whom the Old Man has been bringing moped parts. “Piece by piece, I’ve probably paid you twice that by now.” The plot of The Long Walk is similar: a paradoxical, Protean form whose different, elliptical episodes must be pieced together and synthesised, and whose many bits missing (between then and now) must be supplemented, to make something more than the sum of its parts and worthy of the long, meandering round trip. The more that the Old Man tries to fix the past, the more he introduces ideas to the Boy that are too adult for him properly to understand, leading to a confused, traumatised upbringing that will put the Boy at odds with his future, and set the Old Man burning and burying his own childhood. Yet for all its ingenuity, the screenplay by Do’s regular writer (and husband) Christopher Larsen always circles around its chronological conundrums while remaining firmly focused on character. For here we see not just the dusty, derelict path from Boy to Man, but the strange, shifting symmetries between them, as both are driven forward by their aching, clinging need for lost motherly love. Accordingly this road is paved variously with well-intentioned euthanasic practices and malevolently brutal serial killings, exposed as belonging to the same spectrum of aberrant behaviour which always leaves in its wake an army of lost souls (very much including the Old Man).
So the Old Man’s long walk is not just a mappable trek from house to village and back again, but a 50-year journey of abandonment, hardship, loss and loneliness, lived and relived in a cycling myriad of minor variations that all ultimately, inevitably lead to the same endpoint – without really ever coming to a complete stop. Mysterious and melancholic, The Long Walk tracks a slow, taciturn man’s trip down memory lane towards his own suspended mortality. Haunted by a sense of sadness and betrayal, and by an infinity of regrets and what-ifs, the Old Man may attempt to alter his fated life with all manner of belated counterfactuals and course corrections, but, like Oedipus, he cannot ultimately escape himself or a closed circuit of his own making.
With each successive feature, Do and Larson have gone from strength to strength, elaborating their singular take on national cinema while taking genre to endlessly unexpected places. The Long Walk is their finest film to date. As the saga of a man stuck in a particular place (albeit moving freely in time) and repeatedly visited by the ghosts of his past, it travels somewhere midway between David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) and Gonzalo Calzada’s Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night (2021), while finding a walking pace all its own. The results are all at once culturally specific, universally resonant and (aptly) timeless.
strap: Mattie Do’s third feature has ghosts and time travel wandering parallel generic paths to map a lost soul’s broken life.
© Anton Bitel