While The Long Walk lives up to its title, Laotian director Mattie Do’s third feature is a mostly satisfying rumination on trauma and consequences
An elderly hermit in Laos scavenges the remains of an old motorcycle buried in a thicket of trees, stripping it for parts to sell. A long-decomposed skull lies nearby, but the hermit pays it no mind during his silent work — while he’s clearly haunted by some trauma, his concerns lie with the land of the living for the moment. His walk home is joined by a silent woman, and we learn that the unnamed pair have walked together like this for the past fifty years. Above, an experimental jet breaks the sound barrier, which leads the hermit to check a skin-implanted device for the time, as if keeping schedule. Then, without warning, a boy wanders into the same grove, where he comforts the same woman as she succumbs to injuries sustained from her motorcycle accident.
In these brief, near-silent opening minutes, the third film by Fantastic Fest alumna and pioneer of Laotian cinema Mattie Do establishes itself as an exploration of lasting trauma, the afterlife, and the nature of time. That, and half of it’s set fifty years in the future. Much like the film’s central character, The Long Walk (Bor Mi Vanh Chark) is measured and reserved, exploring these challenging concepts with equally challenging elliptical and opaque storytelling. But the film does manage its fair share of surprises for those who are willing to stick it out through the ponderous and cryptic narrative; Do’s film builds to an emotional explosion with fifty-year-spanning fuse.
The hermit’s isolated country life is rocked as yet another woman disappears from the nearby village. Known for his ability to communicate with spirits, local police come to ask for his help in finding the missing woman’s body before her young daughter arrives from the city. At the same time, the ghost of the woman in the motorcycle accident reveals the hidden ability to transport the hermit through time, bringing the hermit to the weeks before his mother passed away from a painful lung disease. Both incidents will bring the hermit’s darkest secrets to light as the hermit embarks on a selfish journey to change his past and bring order to his present.
Part of what makes The Long Walk such a fascinating watch is seeing how a film rooted in Buddhist beliefs in death and karma deals with ideas of the linear repercussions of time travel. Oddly enough, cinema proves to be an effective neutral ground between the two. Do cuts between actions in the past and present linked as much by thematic content as they are between temporal cause and effect, with the director’s intent often achieving clarity long after the moments pass. The hermit is also often as adrift as the audience watching him, as the film’s supporting cast refuse to explain the consequences of his intervening actions when he returns to his present — often out of fear. The cumulative effect makes the audience feel like they’re souls just as lost as the hermit and the woman following him, desperate to find some delivering clarity or absolution which hangs tantalizingly out of reach.
However, this sensation works just as much against the film as it does in its favor. While The Long Walk does reward its audience’s patience, it doesn’t quite justify the film’s lengthy and underutilized runtime. The film’s multiple red herrings — an alcoholic father, the building sense of encroaching modernity — don’t have the same kinds of payoffs as they do for other aspects of the story; yet they can’t just as easily be cut out due to their own rippling effect throughout Do’s film. The end result can be as alienating as it is intriguing, making this a supernatural time-travel film worth checking out if you don’t mind feeling every minute of the film’s runtime.
It’s the film’s closing moments that manage to justify the time taken to bring its maddeningly disparate scenes together. Here, Do transforms a film about changing the past into a deeper, introspective look at the toxic relationship between trauma and desire. As in most time-travel films, consequences are reckoned with and past secrets are given light in order to forge a better future. But as the full nature of the hermit and the ghost following him are revealed, Do employs a creative twist on a certain ethical question that is uniquely provocative in this more Eastern philosophical context. Time may not heal all wounds, The Long Walk suggests, but there is still the belief that cycles of violence inherently carry a link that can serve to break them someday — be it in the future or the past.
The Long Walk had its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2019. As of publication, it is currently seeking distribution.