Death, Grief, and Buddhism in Fantastic Fest’s The Long Walk

Laotian cinema pioneer Mattie Do's patiently ponderous tale

Mattie Do is a pioneer of Laotian cinema. In a country where horror movies were banned for decades, she did the impossible: She directed a horror film. Her debut feature, Chanthaly, premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2013 to a whirlwind of praise and quickly planted Do as a genre filmmaker to keep an eye on. Her second film, 2016's Dearest Sister, also premiered at the festival, as well as a movie she produced in 2015, River. Now it's the turn of her latest film, The Long Walk.

However, Do's so much more than just a leader of Laotian cinema. Genre cinema has been largely a boy's club, and Fantastic Fest, while progressive when it comes to international programming, has struggled to highlight female directors on a par with their male counterparts. Despite the odds being against her, Do rapidly became one of the first female directors to join the ranks of staple veteran directors to attend the fest. "My career could not have been made if [former Director of International Programming Todd Brown] did not recommend me to Fantastic Fest, and if they hadn't give me a chance," Do stated sincerely. "I do believe that without the support of my amazing audiences like at Fantastic Fest, well, I'm not sure where I would be in my films. I've had such a strong backing from my audience and my mentors and producers, like Todd and Annick [Fantastic Fest programmer Annick Mahnert] since the beginning."

Her film this year, The Long Walk, is both familiar and divergent from her previous work. It's soft and contemplative, a patiently ponderous tale about death that's her most mature film yet. She explained, "The instigation of this film was the death of my mother and my dog, Mango ... When my mother passed away I couldn't help but feel like I wanted to be closer to the spiritual world, and [to know] if there was an afterlife or not. And I didn't. There was nothing that proved to me that there were or were not ghosts. I just don't know."

In The Long Walk, Do's spirits linger throughout, just like in her previous films, but this time there's a different tone to their presence. Where previously Do has worked her ghosts into scares, here they hold a different place in the narrative. The ghosts of The Long Walk are resigned and hopelessly lost. "The most confusing thing was ... when my mother died people came up to me and told me, 'I had a vision of her. I had a dream and she came to me in [it].' All I wanted [to know] was why my mother didn't visit me. Why wouldn't she come to me? ... I am her daughter."

Do explores Buddhist themes within a nonlinear narrative that follows an elderly hermit (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) who discovers the ghost of a road accident victim who helps him remember his mother's death. Its meditative nature churns peacefully throughout the film in such a way that you're able to feel every tender ache her characters experience. "It's a very Buddhist film, but [actually] I'm not a Buddhist," said Do. "But the reality is that it's the majority of Lao religion. One of the beautiful things I love about Buddhists is that they have a strong tie to rebirth and reincarnation, so life cycles can go on. I'm not speaking for all Buddhists, but Laotian Buddhism doesn't adhere strongly to linear time. In fact, one of the things [I touch upon] in Chanthaly, my very first film, [is that] time is not linear for spirits."

The Long Walk

U.S. Premiere

Sat., Sept. 21, 2pm

Wed., Sept. 25, 5pm, with director Mattie Do in attendance

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