The term “elevated horror” entered the lexicon towards the end of the 2010s, around the time Jordan Peele revived black horror with Get Out and Robert Eggers and Ari Aster made their smashing debuts with The Witch and Hereditary, respectively. But any discerning viewer will note that horror was always “elevated” if you knew where to look. Sometimes it was in the forefront, with highly acclaimed auteurs like William Friedkin and Stanley Kubrick at the helm of inspired literary adaptations. At other times, art-horror films happily played to more niche audiences, cementing themselves as cult classics, with some of them—namely Candyman—ripe for a high-publicity reboot twenty or so years down the line. And that’s only here, in the U.S. To prop up current art-horror releases as having heretofore unseen levels of sophistication would be to ignore not only the readily accessible canon of horror as high art in general, but the output of foreign countries, particularly in the East, where they’ve been “elevating” horror as a matter of tradition for decades.
Japan undoubtedly gets the most recognition for its horror films, having well established titles from the silent era, such as Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, all the way to present day, where we Americans are still riffing on their new-millennium hits. Southeast Asia, collectively, has a horror canon to rival Japan’s, with Thailand, Indonesia, and India being the most prolific producers. While the horror conventions in both regions are heavily based in folklore, the prototypical Southeast Asian horror film like Thailand’s Nang-Nak or Laotian filmmaker Mattie Do’s sophomore feature, The Long Walk, have deep roots in ancient spiritual customs.
To a confounding and not always successful effect, Do launches from this legacy into a genre hybrid, a supernatural drama with a touch of speculative fiction. This approach, ambitious but a tad inchoate, doesn’t totally weave all of its science fiction elements into the main narrative, which deals with a clairvoyant hermit-cum-medicine man’s attempts to erase his childhood trauma with the help of the ghost of a young woman who’s haunted him most of his life.
Our mysterious hermit, known only as The Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy), lives alone in a stilt house on the outskirts of a city. Currency has gone almost completely digital, and people conduct transactions through their bodies with the help of microchip implants and moving ink displays on their skin. One would assume this detail should carry some kind of significance. The explicitness of its introduction and the technical effort needed to create the skin effect precludes it from being a throwaway choice, and yet it bears no relevance to anything else in the movie. The setting is not futuristic in any other way, and the majority of the narrative focuses on The Old Man burying the bodies of multiple women who he seems to have mercy killed during illness (possibly only from his point of view, we later learn). The ghost of the young woman (Noutnapha Soydara) gives him the ability to travel back in time. He takes advantage of this gift by formulating a plan to euthanize his mother, who died a slow and painful death from tuberculosis.
The depiction of time travel as a supernatural process would have been sufficient if Do had intended to blend supernatural and science fiction elements, for neither has a logical explanation or really needs one, and they both work to develop the themes of the film. The more straightforward instances of futurism only detract from this solid foundation, calling to mind hackneyed American speculative conceits that make for cheap box office fodder. When looking for something to compare it to, the 2011 Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time comes to mind.
When looking past this shortcoming, The Long Walk is nearly extraordinary, devious with its characters and their true motivations, experimental with its portrayal of cyclical time, and impassioned in its sense of ethics. It makes the sometimes difficult-to-swallow point that we cannot always mitigate harm or erase pain, and to do so might even be selfish, misguided, and more harmful than allowing the suffering to pass naturally. It questions commonly held beliefs about death, mainly whether or not our customs surrounding burial and the dying process has to do with true, humanist consideration for the dying or, rather, the emotional needs of the living . | Nic Champion