In specificity comes universality. I know that’s pretentious, but if you take away the pointlessly flowery prose, the point still stands. When someone makes a piece of art and does so with a focused perspective, it acts as an open door for the audience. Theoretically, it allows anyone from any walk of life to view a place, a time, or a way of life that might be utterly foreign to them and engender empathy.

“Theoretically” is the key word, however. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last six years or so, it’s by and large, we suck at empathy. Why is that? While there is a myriad of reasons, I keep coming back to two big ones. First, the internet changed our relationship to art. We engage with art as customers, judge it against the value of our “hard-earned” money, and feel entitled to make demands of artists.* 

Second, it’s hard to have empathy when you’re scared. People are scared that the war in Ukraine will kick off a nuclear exchange. They’re scared that they’ll be murdered due to racism or homophobia. They’re scared that the world is transforming into something unrecognizable and their only means of defense will be taken away.

Bullies view empathy as weakness and the great irony is they can’t recognize how much work empathy truly is. You have to step outside of your comfort zone. Willingly. Repeatedly. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. When I first heard about The Long Walk, a small film from Laos, I realized the only thing I know about Laos is that it’s a country in Southeast Asia. It would have been so easy to have passed this film by, and if I had, I would have missed something extraordinary.

The opening images of The Long Walk are striking. We follow an Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) scavenging in the Lao jungle. He discovers a rusted motorbike and knows he can break it down for scrap to sell. As he slowly walks the bike down a dusty road, a futuristic jet roars overhead, streaking toward a glittering metropolis in the distance. He’s accompanied by a silent young woman (Noutnapha Soydara). He remarks to her, “Fifty years and you’ve never said a word.”

Once the old man reaches a village, he heads for a shop to pawn his scrap. A tap on his forearm reveals a holographic display. The clerk mocks him, saying the display is from a government issue chip that must be a thousand years old. Is it really? When you’re in a place where things change fast and never change at the same time, it’s hard to keep track.

Things get complicated when the Old Man is approached by Lina (Vilouna Phetmany). She asks him if the rumors are true he can communicate with ghosts. He replies, reluctantly, that he can. The Old Man lives his life with the dead, and the corpse occupying space in his isolated rural house is just one piece of evidence toward…what, exactly?

We also meet a Boy (Por Silatsa) who lives with his mother (Chanthamone Inoudome) and father (Vithaya Sombath). His mother is sick. Her cough seems to be getting worse, not better, and we realize they live in the same house as the Old Man. Before long, the Boy encounters another corpse in the jungle. The spirit has liberated itself from the body. It’s the same young woman who’s been following the Old Man. There are connections. There always are.

There are a number of reasons why The Long Walk is significant. Director Mattie Do is, literally, the only female filmmaker in Laos and the only Lao filmmaker to make a movie within the horror/science-fiction genre. She’s made a damn good movie, a deliberately paced** film that never becomes dull Roger Ebert used to say that no bad movie is short enough and no good movie is long enough. The concept fits perfectly here, and while The Long Walk doesn’t exactly fly by, Do always makes sure each scene pushes forward plot or character. Plus, some stories don’t need to be told at ninety miles per hour. 

Do also has an impressive command of tone. There are moments of wry humor, such as an encounter with American NGO’s itching to put up solar panels. They ignore what the locals actually need and push what they think the locals need. The locals are very used to this. There are moments of subdued drama, where the Old Man muses over his life or the Boy reckons with his terminally ill mother and desperate father. There are moments of skin-crawling horror. Do navigates all of those tone shifts flawlessly and makes her film feel emotionally real.

Screenwriter Christopher Larsen has taken what could have been a horribly convoluted concept and structured it elegantly. It’s hard to tell a story with alternate timelines and have it make a lick of sense. It’s also hard to tell a story with supernatural aspects and create some kind of framework that makes sense. Now, imagine writing a story with time travel, ghosts, and ideas surrounding grief, guilt, and consequences. Once you sit with Larsen’s script for a few minutes and get onto its particular wavelength, you’ll see it does it all in a way that’s compelling without being indecipherable.

This is a film entirely lacking in big, showy performances, and it’s all the better. The cast is subtle, nuanced, and able to project big emotions without big histrionics. As the Old Man, Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy has a weary gravitas not unlike Kevin Costner in some of his later roles. Chanthalungsy has a particular way of narrowing his eyes, taking a hit from his vape pen and blowing great clouds of smoke, and indicating emotions from amusement to anger to loss. He’s spent years convinced that he’s conducted himself in a correct way, and when he’s challenged, the results are fascinating. 

I have no idea what it’s like to live in rural Laos, to have to survive on what I can either farm or find. I remain almost entirely ignorant about Lao culture.*** But I know what it’s like to feel the helplessness of a parent dying before my eyes, the absolute certainty I’m doing the right thing, and the shock of learning I’ve utterly failed. I was reminded of all that by this remarkable film. The Long Walk is cinema that’s intelligent, soulful, and utterly necessary. 

*As a reminder, this is wrong. You can express your like, dislike, or disinterest over a movie. You don’t get to tag a filmmaker online, demand certain aspects, and expect to be taken seriously. You’re not at goddamn Arby’s.

**I know, “deliberate pacing” is usually a euphemism for “boring.”

***A little research into Lao cuisine introduced me to paa tod, a fried catfish delicacy, and naem khao, a crispy coconut rice dish. If anyone can point me in the direction of a good Lao eatery, please help a brother out.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.