horror

Walking with Ghosts

Carol’s piece on Mattie Do’s The Long Walk (2019) contains plot details. She doesn’t think they’d spoil the movie, but now you know.

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The Long Walk (2019) is a slow-burning blend of genres. It’s a movie that requires some patience (and possibly a second viewing) as it builds to a devastating finish. It’s horror and science fiction. It’s a ghost story, serial killer story, character study and Buddhist morality tale. It’s also a story using an unusual means of time travel. Instead of a police public call box or phone booth, storage unit, Victorian era sleigh, or souped up Delorean, The Long Walk uses a ghost. 

The Long Walk is the third feature and the third ghost story from Lao-American director Mattie Do and screenwriter Christopher Larsen, following Chanthaly (2012) and Dearest Sister (2015). Do is the first Lao woman to direct a feature film and the director of the first Lao horror movie, Chanthaly. I haven’t seen Chanthaly yet, but Dearest Sister is excellent. Do presents a fine and harrowing ghost story.

In The Long Walk, an unnamed man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) 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 man lives in his childhood home along a stretch of road in rural Laos.  He barely makes a living selling what he salvages in the roadside woods. When he’s not working, the man walks the road with the ghost of a woman (Noutnapha Soydara) he comforted as she died in those same woods fifty years ago. The Long Walk is set in the future, but it is hard to say exactly when. People use implanted microchips to tell time and pay for things, but little changes along the road or in his home over the course of his life. The road and the woods that edge up to it feel as if they are 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 near their graves 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. Because the ghost is connected to the man and the road in a way she is not connected to time, the man can accompany her into his own past and watch himself as a boy (Por Silatsa) selling vegetables at a roadside stand with his mother (Chanthamone Inoudome). 

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, the application of lipstick, the cracked glass on a cabinet, a bloody nail projecting from splintered wood, the careful removal of flesh off a fingerbone. And as things change in the man’s life, things begin to change in the boy’s life as well. Things happen to the boy 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 he deludes himself that it’s not really him doing them. The man claims that he can fix his life–their lives–but the only fix he has had so far is killing. Every problem looks like it can be murdered when you are a murderer. It becomes clear over the course of the film that not only has he been killing women, but he has trapped their spirits to prevent them from being reborn. He does it deliberately so that his mother and he will never be alone. But the man blames his child self, claiming that he wasn’t the one who 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 focuses on the idea of self/selves and on karma–the concrete actions the man and the boy take and their unintended effects. In the same way that Hollywood ghost and possession 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. Without getting too deeply into it, the man and the boy 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, no conservation of self, in Theravada cosmology. Instead, people are a series of processes. The ghost is a processual self continuing because of her attachments to the man, the boy, and her grave. Once the man encounters his child self, they are two different people, two different sets of processes set in motion. The more the man does, the more complex their situation becomes.

In case this Buddhist slant wasn’t clear earlier in the film, it becomes clear when the boy appears dressed in the robes of a monk leading 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 instead become someone who actually helps people, but he runs away to confront his future self. When the boy asks his question of the man, he is 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, by the man’s standards, he will do worse. And given the man’s history, the boy would at least have done some of them without the man’s interference. 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, the man doesn’t and he can’t. The man 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 with no way to conceal from himself anymore what he is doing and what he has done–except by blaming his child self.

The Long Walk is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. 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.

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Carol Borden received a screener to review this film, so’s you know. This piece appeared in a slightly different form at Monstrous Industry.

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