Since its initial release in September 2019, director Mattie Do’s (Dearest Sister) dramatic sci-fi thriller Bor Mi Vanh Chark (The Long Walk) has seen either additional festival screenings or limited releases across the globe. Now, with distribution from Yellow Veil Pictures in the U.S., The Long Walk is making its wide theatrical debut in February, followed by a VOD and digital release in March. Do’s film, written by Christopher Larsen (Dearest Sister), wears many hats and each of them fits beautifully. It’s a dramatic film about death, dying, and loss. It’s a thriller involving self-determination. It’s a science-fiction wonder involving time travel. On their own, these pieces tell a contemplative narrative leaving the audience plenty to chew on. Together, however, The Long Walk takes the form of a highly original, gripping, devastating tale which you’ll need to revisit in order to track the impeccable framework that was laid for us from the moment we begin the adventure.
In a rural Laos town lives an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) known for communicating with spirits. He developed this reputation as a young boy (Por Silatsa) who would be seen walking with a young woman (Noutnapha Soydara) who would disappear from view when anyone walked too close. In the roughly 50 years since his childhood, the old man would keep to himself and mind his own, but things begin to shift for him when Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), the daughter of a local woman, comes to him looking to communicate with her believed-to-be deceased mother. In their coming together, the old man begins a mysterious journey across time that incites him to reconsider every choice he’s ever made up until the present.
The opening of a film often tells us everything we need to know about what’s going to come. Perhaps not the specific details of the narrative, but there’s a certain telegraphing of tone and intent in the beginning of a film that tends to carry through to the credits. In The Long Walk, this is established in several ways. Place this man going from inside the jungle to walking a dirt road with a busted motorbike, the towers of city life looming far in the distance, then an idea of a certain detachment from modernity or urban ideas is cemented pretty quickly. Soon after, we see the same space occupied by the young boy, the surroundings appearing a bit newer than before, a bit healthier, that same motorbike less torn and rusted, and Do goes further than setting up notions of the man as a loner, but immediately communicates that time and space are important. That, rather than perceiving what happens in a linear sense, we must consider that things are happening all at once, along together, at the same time. In recent memory, there have been several play-with-time films — Synchronic (2019), Palm Spring (2020), The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021) — but none, clever as they are, do so in a way that reimagines the time loop-as-narrative-device as less significant than the story itself. In those other films, the time loop is a thing to be broken or preserved, seen as either jailer or guardian angel from an unseen force. Larsen’s script presents it as something else entirely and far more philosophical in nature than any before it. If all time is happening now and you could effect change upon the past that would then impact the future, the first question is usually how, followed by why. Larsen and Do ask entirely different questions, focused on the meaning in which it personally impacts the old man and his small sphere. Additionally, other films treat the time travel aspect as a gimmick, something to delight or entertain the audience as the characters work their way through it, whereas, here, it’s not for entertainment purposes, but for introspection. Each time the parallel stories converge, the narrative explodes, emotions rising higher, pulsing with energy until no one — not the characters, not the audience — can take it anymore. One can only remain detached for so long until they must face what they’re running from and take action.
It’s hard not to find oneself utterly giddy at the ingeniousness and simplicity of Do’s film. One shouldn’t feel joy, necessarily, from the narrative, one rich with trauma and disappointment; yet, I think one could be forgiven for taking delight in The Long Walk for the way in which it delicately, slowly, and, without faltering a step, unveils itself. Amid the focus on the old man and the boy, there’s misdirection at play so that the audience, especially an American one, forgets that the woman is a central figure, too. Played wordlessly by Soydara, the woman is the conduit for the old man/boy’s time travel (as the man visits the boy and vice versa once introduced together) and is easily forgotten as being central to narrative. In American culture, spirits tend to be treated as either helpers or hindrances (ex. Ghostbusters franchise), rarely ever more than that unless the protagonist becomes the spirit. But as the narrative carefully reveals the old man’s fate per each choice he’s made, we better understand the purpose of the woman’s presence as more than just a doorway for the old man, especially as we learn more about the old man and the critical life moment of the boy and the reason for the woman being there comes into sharp focus. Its narrative purpose is shatteringly powerful. Combined with intimate direction and cinematography capturing the realism amid the surreal, The Long Walk shifts from becoming a film one watches to one we experience along with the old man.
The Long Walk is deceptive in how deep a film it is with such a simple premise. It doesn’t spend time bemoaning modernity in favor of a specific era. In fact, the tale takes place in an undetermined period of time that is futuristic or alternative, yet plausible. It doesn’t place answers in front of you, but gives you enough from beginning to end in order to deduce a holistic one through which you can look back on the film and understand. The film isn’t merely made up of staggering performances or twisty moments. Larsen’s script is a patiently constructed optical illusion that you can only truly understand when you’re far enough back from it to see The Long Walk completely, to understand what the long walk is, who is taking it, and why. We are the culmination of every choice we make before the next one. How chilling a thought that can be when you can see every positive and negative decision in the past realized in your present. I assure you, terrifying as it is, it won’t deter you from revisiting this tale again and again.
In theaters February 18th, 2022.
Available on VOD and digital March 1st, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The Long Walk website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.