Of all human emotions, nothing is as ghastly as grief. It is a ghost that appears and grasps your heart enough to suffocate you, or slowly tangle itself in the veins of it as if it belongs there. In every aspect that involves loss, grief lingers. We all grieve in one way or another, but it gives birth to another path as we go along and within it, grief accompanies us in the form of heartaches, nostalgia and sorrow.
Mattie Do’s The Long Walk is interesting. It starts slow, with such weight on its steps that we can’t help but feel that there’s something that compels you to unravel it. It opens to an enigmatic old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) traversing the dusty roads of rural Laos, scavenging motorcycle parts to earn money whilst being accompanied by a Girl (Noutnapha Soydara). In another scene, a young boy (Por Silatsa) runs into the forest to find a young woman slowly dying in pain. As she breathes her last breath, she pleads to him to hold her hand to which he obliges. Upset by the event, he finds her ghost following him in his journey from the farm to the stall where his mother sells vegetables.
We later learn that both stories are intertwined as the ghost is a time traveler who can travel as she pleases. Here, we learn from the Old Man how he witnessed the suffering of his mother before her death, the parental abandonment after and that sense of loss he seems to take with in the long road. He occasionally meets with a young boy, the son of farmers whom the narrative also gives time to introduce. For the young boy, he makes a companion with his newfound friend, the Girl as he copes with his mother’s illness.
The Old Man constantly lives with the pain of watching his mother suffer from her illness prior to her death. He goes through time with the help of the Girl trying to atone with the painful memory by easing some sufferings of ill strangers, only to find their ghosts looking at him regretfully. For the Boy, as his mother’s illness gets worse, and the coping gets harder, he asks for the Girl’s help only for her to bring him to the Old Man. As Time opens the opportunity for the Old Man to finally make amends with his regrets, it creates a new version of him.
The Long Walk finds not only a companion in grief, it fills every space with it. The ominous sounds, the hurried ticking of the clock, the ghastly whispers as time moves back and forth. The enigmatic old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) traverses the dusty roads of rural Laos with an electronic pipe and the ghost of a young woman (Noutnapha Soydara) whose hand he held with, in its dying moments. It is the ghost in this film and Do captures it in detail: the color palette that slowly changes into darker tones as it makes tonal shifts in every decision the Old Man created; the cabinet bearing witness to every changed decision and even in the sci-fi elements of it captures a sense of weariness in it.
Films about grief often have endearing ways of execution in various genres, but in Do’s film it transforms itself like crawling vines across a childhood home, never sure where it will next wrap itself around. But somehow it still finds moments where the pacing occasionally slips out towards a tonal shift. It’s an interesting experience, trying to figure it all out but earnest in exercising the sorrows of grief and all the weight that comes with it.
While I feel that the Long Walk executes a compelling emotion in its core, it also gives us a sense of foreboding in how holding on to it, can eventually lead us to our downfall; how constantly tampering with it, to selfishly use it for our needs instead of allowing it to pass through. In the end, the only thing that moves forward is time itself.
In the Q&A session afterwards, Mattie talks about how the film was partly inspired by the death of her mother and dog. You can feel the grief and a sense of regret through her words and how it transcends in her work. The Long Walk is an exercise in grief and how its ghost can haunt us turning us inside out, leaving us in shambles as time carries on.