Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.03: The Long Walk

Hey, check it out, Mattie Do in the house!

Kevi Monahan of the Boston Underground Film Festival surprised her with a gift from one of her producers, a little something to toast the end of The Long Walk's festival run. He was clearly hoping it could have gone on a little longer to play BUFF, but the timing probably wouldn't have lined up as well, as Do mentioned she had meetings over the next week for an English-language movie which could potentially fund a few more Laotian films.

It was an emotional Q&A at times; when making the movie, she had recently lost her mother and her dog and was as such determined not to make death look nice in this film - even when it could be seen as a respite or a kindness after long suffering, it still plays hell with the living, and that she succeeds shows what a relatively delicate balance it is; one of the pivotal scenes of the film is largely built on a well-meaning bit of euthenasia that has to ride the line between the audience understanding why the person in question does this but also immediately seeing why a person taking this on is tremendously dangerous, and I don't know if it would have succeeded if she wasn't so determined to not compromise there.

(I'm sure it sounds odd to put those two deaths in the same sentence like that, but from the way she talked, I suspect that putting her dog down was a fairly direct inspiration for that scene, because it meant taking direct control over ending another's life. The ideas come where they come. And besides, I believe we established that she really loves dogs three years ago in Australia.)

Not that the Q&A was primarily maudlin; Ms. Do is an enthusiastic, funny live wire whose jokes often have genuine bite to them, like when she laughs about being a "jungle Asian" rather than a kung-fu Asian or tea-ceremony Asian and how it can as a result in mostly seeing poverty porn when outsiders make a movie about her home. A lot of what she talked about was how it was a wild shoot - parting ways with the original cinematographer early, then hiring a guy at the last minute based upon the recommendation of Synchronic filmmakers Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson. That tightened their schedule, which meant that a lot had to go right toward the end, because you don't get a lot of chances for reshoots when the last few days of shooting involve burning down the house where many earlier scenes had been shot, getting the last shots in town while the agers did their work, and then shooting the scenes you needed after the house had been overgrown with vines and the like. It is worth mentioning that apparently setting a house on fire is not quite so easy as it looks and how the part of the production design/set decoration team that makes things look older are kind of amazing; movie magic that requires a bunch of detailed work that audiences don't see up close but which can boot you right out of the picture if done poorly.

Anyway, Mattie Do is great, and I hope this movie pokes through into theaters, helping her get some of that Hollywood money to make more Laotian films.

Bor Mi Vanh Chark (The Long Walk)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

A fair amount of people might think The Long Walk takes too much time to get to the good stuff, as the really tricky genre material doesn't show up until halfway through. It's a fair critique if that's all you want from the movie, but it's a rich experience getting there.

It opens about fifty years in the future, with an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) scavenging parts from an old, wrecked motorcycle. He has a reputation for being able to see spirits, one with a basis in fact: The girl who wrecked the motorcycle (Noutnapha Soydara) has been with him since he was a small boy (Por Silatsa), as her body was never cremated. In the 2010s, she was the closest thing he had to a friend, trapped as he was between an angry father (Brandon Hashimoto) and a sickly mother (Chanthamone Inoudome); in the 2060s, he's approached by Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), a young girl who had left for the city, to find out if her missing mother has died. Soon, these timelines begin to cross, and the hermit becomes tangled up in the world around him in more ways than one.

The team of director Mattie Do and her husband, writer Christopher Larsen, do something kind of interesting in how they shift the timeline on this story from past/present to present/future but do not use a technological means for having the protagonist become unstuck in time; it unburdens the story from any colonial baggage it might have picked up even accidentally, letting the filmmakers ground the film in Laotian tradition without having to write around ubiquitous westerners who will try to explain things scientifically. There are still some around, in the present, of course, installing solar panels that are of little practical use to a farming family, but Lina's modernity and uncertainty with tradition, for example, are her own, not the result of external changes. It's an odd situation, sliding the timeline forward so the audience doesn't get caught up in nostalgia or other ways of either discounting or romanticizing the past.

Do tells an intriguing story of sad, kind of selfish isolation here, one that ultimately turns inward in frightening fashion. For a large portion of the movie, it plays out in somewhat conventional if heightened fashion - a young boy with litle life outside his parents loses one and is basically abandoned by the other never learns to connect with others, instead retreating into the company of spirits nobody else can see. The filmmakers see a way for this to be potentially sinister even before the chance to encounter himself as a boy starts letting him tighten his circle, and once that kicks in, those who come to this looking for a time-travel story will marvel at how nicely the film is constructed. There's genuine horror to be found in the shifting timelines and impressive attention to detail; Do does good work in getting big impact out of small things, and subtly changing the look of the film between the present and the future so that we can traverse the gap naturally but still know where we are. This part of the story is done well enough tht some will wish it was the whole film. Underneath, it's more than a puzzle; it's an acknowledgement that loneliness can't be solved unilaterally, and that good intentions can be twisted.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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