The Long Walk (Laos, 2022) is a slow-burning blend of genres. It’s horror and science fiction. It’s a ghost story, time travel story, serial killer story, character study and Buddhist morality tale. It is a solid movie, very well-made, and builds to a devastating finish. A man tries to save himself from the pain of seeing his mother die coughing blood in front of him. But the more he tries to fix it, the worse he makes his life and himself. The Long Walk is the third feature and the third ghost story from Lao-American director Mattie Do, following Chanthaly (2012) and Dearest Sister (2015). Do is the first Lao woman to direct a feature film and the director of the first horror movie, Chanthaly, made in Laos. I haven’t seen Chanthaly yet, but Dearest Sister is excellent. Do tells a fine and harrowing ghost story.
An unnamed man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) lives in his childhood home along a stretch of road in rural Laos. He barely makes a living selling salvage he finds in the woods. And he walks the road with the ghost of a woman (Noutnapha Soydara) he comforted as she died fifty years ago. The Long Walk is set in the future, but it is hard to say exactly when. People use microchips implanted in them to tell time and pay for things, but the man’s chip is old and outdated. Little changes along the road or in his home. The road and the woods along it feel as if they were outside time. The man believes he has helped people, women in particular, by poisoning them with tea to spare them painful, lonely deaths. He buries them by the road and visits them as their ghosts stand in the woods. The spirits do not speak to him, not even the ghost that has watched him and walked with him most of his life. And now, because time is illusory to a spirit, the man accompanies her down the road so he can watch himself as a boy (Por Silatsa) selling vegetables at a roadside stand with his mother.
But the more the man interacts with his child self, the more he tries to improve things for himself, the more things change around him. Small things at first because this is a film that focuses on exquisitely small details–mandarin oranges at a roadside altar, the sound of a bottle kicked down the road, the mixing of tea, a blood trail in the woods, applying lipstick to the mouth of a corpse, the cracked glass on a cabinet, a bloody nail projecting from splintering wood, the careful removal of flesh off a fingerbone. Things change in the boy’s life as well–things that never happened in the man’s life. And the man returns to his own present only to discover that he has done increasingly terrible things, but still he deludes himself that it’s not really him doing them. The man claims that he can fix it, but the only fix he has had so far is killing. Every problem looks like it can be murdered when you are a murderer. And it becomes clear that not only has he been killing women, but he has trapped their spirits preventing them from being reborn so that his mother, and more importantly he, will never be alone. But he blames the boy, saying that he didn’t hurt someone, and has no answer when the boy asks him, “Then who did?”
While The Long Walk is part of a trend of horror that deals with trauma and grief, and a continuing trend of stories about serial killers, it is also a very Buddhist horror movie. It’s not one in the vein of Nobuo Nakagawa’s delightfully lurid and stylized look at hell, Jigoku (1960). It is in its focus on karma–the concrete actions the man and the boy take and their unintended results–and in its focus on self or selves. In the same way that Hollywood possession and ghost stories are often very Christian in their understanding of how ghosts and demons work, The Long Walk relies on Lao and Theravada Buddhist tradition for its presentation of ghosts and time travel in the future. Without getting too deeply into it, the man and the boy can exist side by side without the man’s memories changing, as they would in most North American time travel stories, because there is no unified eternal soul in Theravada cosmology. In case this Buddhist slant wasn’t clear enough earlier in the film, it becomes clear when the boy appears on the screen dressed in the robes of a monk as he leads the funeral procession for his mother. The boy has been taken in by the local monastery. But the boy resists the funeral rites that would help his mother move on and be reborn. He doesn’t want her to leave, a desire he shares with his older self. The boy has a chance to stay at the monastery and escape becoming someone who hurts people and become someone who actually helps people, but he runs away and visits his future self instead. And when the boy asks his question of the man, he might be dressed in lay clothing, but his head is still shaven, giving additional resonance to,. “Then who did?” Who is responsible? Who starts this chain of events? They are both, in the words of the Buddha, avoiding pain and the actions they take to avoid that pain have consequences that ripple out uncontrollably.
The Long Walk reminds me of Let The Right One In (2008) in one way: We see a boy just before he becomes a killer. He is still innocent. He hasn’t done the terrible things the man has done yet, but there is evidence that he will do worse by the man’s standards. And he would at least have done some of them if the man hadn’t interfered. The man makes the boy into an arguably more monstrous man, but there is also the possibility that the man could have helped his child self, except that, really, he doesn’t and he can’t. He doesn’t help any of the people he could have helped—himself, the boy, the ghosts trapped by the side of the road. In his attempt to spare his child self the horror of seeing his mother die coughing blood in front of him, the man makes everything worse and more horrible with no way to conceal from himself anymore what he is doing–except by blaming his child self.
The Long Walk is in select theaters now and available on streaming March 1.
(Please be aware that if you are not in a place to watch a movie where a bad thing happens to a child, a bad thing happen to a child in The Long Walk. It’s not gratuitous but perhaps all the more affecting because of that).
Carol Borden received a screener to review this film, so’s you know. Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. Sh was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs. She has written for Biff Bam Pop, Soldier of Cinema, Mezzanotte, Teleport City, Die Danger Die Die Kill, and Popshifter. She’s appeared on CBC radio, The Projection Booth podcast, The Feminine Critique podcast, and The Infernal Brains podcast. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day. You can find them here.