Violet Burns discusses director Mattie Do's third feature film The Long Walk and their shared experiences with loss.
Mattie Do is a brilliant, iconoclastic Laotian-American filmmaker who has been instrumental in revitalizing the Laotian film industry. She’s the first woman to direct a feature film in Laos, the first-ever Lao horror director, and now the first Lao director to have a wide theatrical release in the United States. None of these milestones came easily, but she’s never been one to run from a challenge.
Do has accomplished the seemingly impossible with her gorgeous, intimate first feature film Chanthaly (2012). Filmed in Do’s own home in Vientiane, this low-budget ghost story almost never saw the light of day. The film was initially flagged by the censorship board of the Lao Department of Cinema and not cleared for production. Not to be deterred, Do took a creative approach to work within the constraints of censorship in the Marxist country to get her film made. Since then, she has gained critical acclaim for her second film Dearest Sister (2016), a ghost story and scathing critique of consumerism. Her latest feature film, The Long Walk (2019) is a heartbreaking genre-bender that explores the horrors of loneliness, grief, and regret. The film world premiered to great acclaim at the Venice International Film Festival in the Giornate degli Autori section and was later praised at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Mattie Do sat down with Violet Burns for an interview. They discussed navigating censorship in Laos, the problematic expectations Western audiences often impose on Asian films, her uniquely Laotian take on time travel, and the reverberating effects of grief. The interview ended with an emotional discussion of the deaths of their mothers and their shared experiences. Violet said about the experience, "I will treasure this interview experience forever and I’m tremendously grateful for Do’s candor, empathy, and support during our conversation."
The Long Walk is available to rent and own on digital and home video with a Limited Edition Slipcover Blu-ray available from Yellow Veil Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome.
Violet: What I find amazing is that you didn't wait for a door to open for you. You made your own door and helped create a new movie-making infrastructure in a country with a history of strict censorship. Could you describe the process of carving out a space for genre cinema in Laos?
Mattie Do: I think that my producers were trying to make a door, but I just kind of drove a tank through a wall. I was already mowing walls down and being like, oops, shit. I already made a space. Now my producers know how belligerent I am, and how if I set my heart on doing something, it's going to get done come hell or high water.
Censorship is very interesting because there was initially a lot of trepidation about what I was doing in Laos. A lot of filmmakers viewed the Censorship Board and the Department of Cinema as an antagonizing forces, but I kind of saw it differently. I saw it as…these poor guys stuck in this office; they must be bored as fuck because they're not getting very many films to censor or to be a part of or to reveal. And so I thought I should spice their lives up a bit.
I mean, that didn't immediately occur to me like that until I met them. Because they censored my first film [Chanthaly] and said, “no, you can't make a ghost film.” And I realized, why aren't we working together? You are the government, and your task is to make sure that Lao films get made and seen. So why are you blocking my ghost film? What worries you? What scares you? And they were super shocked. I don't think anyone's ever approached them and asked how they felt about something when they say that something is banned, or it doesn't get a permit. And I was like, well, how do you feel now? And they said, “we are a Marxist country, and Marxists aren't supposed to promote supernatural beliefs. We're worried that if you do a ghost film, you're trying to push people into believing in the supernatural.” And I was like, well, do you believe in it? And they're like, "well, of course! We're Lao! Lao people believe." And I was like, you don't want me to put on screen what we already know and hold dear to our hearts as being part of our culture and tradition?
Then they got really nervous. They're just like, “yeah, well, we don't want it to be forceful. We don't want you to push this idea down anyone's throat.” And I thought about it and said, what if I added a character that didn't believe in the supernatural at all? You know, he could be, like the government position, the father who cannot accept the idea of the supernatural. And then we have a cousin who strongly is a traditionalist and strongly believes, and then we have Chanthaly, our protagonist, in the middle of the two, torn and wanting to believe. And then the audience can just decide who they want to sympathize with. And then they passed my film, and I rewrote the characters to fit this model, which I liked because I don't like to force audience members into one direction or belief.
I’ve learned that censorship in Laos is really not a huge problem compared to other countries where it’s just a hard pass. At least in Laos, I can talk to them and figure out how to tell the story I want to tell. Like, they don't want me to do political content where I'm commenting negatively on politics or the government in Laos, and they don’t want me to do pornography (which would make me really awkward anyway). But they are really worried about violence, and I have to toe that line with them. They’re getting better about it because, from my first film to my second to now, I've drawn that line farther and farther down the sand, and they know it. Now they're just like, “how many bodies this time, Mattie?”
Violet: I've read that you’ve worked as an onset makeup artist to help fund your ballet training, so you've had the unique experience of being both behind the scenes and on stage in different parts of the theatrical world. How do you think these experiences have informed your filmmaking process?
Mattie Do: I think that the experience I've had on stage informs the visual storytelling and the flow of my work. In thefilm, we have so many ways to show, visually, how we want the story to move or what's happening, but in ballet, there's only one way, and that's on the stage. And so that's basically what we call the master shot or the wide shot; there are no closeups.
When you're on the stage, you have a completely different experience than what the audience is experiencing. We give each other these small cues. For instance, if you're in the Core de Ballet, the ensemble, you move almost in unison, almost in sync, but sometimes there are these really subtle cues that you give each other. We'll look at each other in the eyes or change the direction of our eyes, and we know, like, I need to adjust my position so that everything falls into place. People in the audience can't see that, but these tiny, subtle gestures, I can catch that in film. This is the kind of intimacy that I love to show in my films in close shots. I can show, like, a hand twitching, a finger twitching, or I can show like just the eyelash moving… when someone looks from a weapon to their target. And I think that informs my filmmaking a lot.
In terms of being a makeup artist, I still do a lot of makeup on my films—not the gore effects, but the natural makeup. Maybe I'm lucky because other directors…sometimes I think they feel stressed about how much time they get to work with their performers, or how much rehearsal time they get. While I'm powdering their face or reapplying their lipstick, I have the time to go over the work that we've just been doing, or the characters that we're working through, or the scenes. I can continue to work with them as a director while I'm doing their makeup.
Violet: I feel like white Western audiences tend to exoticize Southeast Asian cultures as kind of static and unchanged by the forces of time, and your new film The Long Walk explicitly rebukes that notion by being a straight-up time travel film.
Mattie Do: Yeah. I really hate this exotification of other cultures, especially Asians. Like all kinds of white people have this yellow fever, like… this is what an Asian is, or this is how Asian people behave, or this is what Asian people believe. Like they're the goddamn experts of all of Asia. Do they know how fucking big Asia is? It's kind of gross. They treat us like zoo animals. And here I am generalizing white folk like a big monolith too, but maybe if they didn't treat us like a monolith, I wouldn't have to do this. A lot of Occidentals watch films from places like Southeast Asia, and they treat it like it's a fucking anthropological study. Like, you're going to learn the mating habits of Lao people by watching The Long Walk? Please, it's a film, and it can be any kind of film I want it to be.
I don't need a white guardian of culture to tell me the kind of Lao film I should make and tell me how Lao people would react or how Lao people would behave. And this is really important to me. There is this idea that all of our films should be this exotic jungle film. Like, it's always going to be Apocalypse Now. Now that was fucking 1970 something, Vietnam war. My parents were refugees from this war, and I'm like 40 years old. That was a lifetime ago and you want me to stay stagnant and just keep making, like, fucking jungle Asian films?
So, let me give you a jungle Asian film. You know what? Here's my jungle Asian film: a serial killer who lives in a Lao village who can time travel with his best buddy ghost friend. And he kills his own fucking mom by euthanizing her. Have fun. I mean, maybe it's a little bit punk rock. Maybe my personality is a little hardcore rock and roll in that way, but maybe people need to be thrown into the mosh pit and beaten around a little bit for them to learn that a film from Asia can be a film from so many different countries, so many different traditions and told in so many different ways. And it’s still authentic. We don’t need white people to tell us where we are currently in our contemporary lives and in our contemporary stories. And this is why I love The Long Walk, because I was able to take things that we consider valuable in our country, like our traditional religion and our traditional way of life, these things we hold dear. But that doesn't mean that we don't have fucking phones or technology and that we don't live life and have the same problems that other people have too.
Violet: I've noticed that a lot of coverage of The Long Walk keeps describing your film as a crazy genre mashup, but I don't really see it that way because I feel like there's this artificial boundary between sci-fi and the supernatural or the spiritual.
Mattie Do: There shouldn't be boundaries. That's why [time travel] feels organic in The Long Walk, because the way Buddhism here works is that you go through your current life cycle, and when you pass away, you are reborn and you can be reborn in multiple different ways. In The Long Walk, they keep getting reborn, but it's almost like they're stuck in a time loop, their own loop that keeps cycling, and maybe it's broken and we believe that if you've had a bad death, like accidental death, that your spirit might not move on. It doesn't get to be reborn. Bad deaths sometimes mean that you don't even know that you're dead, or that you haven't had anyone to acknowledge that you're dead and that's why you have hauntings, and that's what the girl is. She's haunting because she hasn't had the ceremonial rights at the temple done, or a proper burial or cremation. She hasn't been able to be assisted to move on, and she's stuck.
The film is this mashup of genres, but at the same time, it feels organic because it's based on reality, on existing beliefs: we believe in rebirth, we believe in reincarnation. And that's why I think it doesn't feel like there are lines between spirituality, a ghost film, and a genre film: you don't have to have a line when the reality is that we truly believe that ghosts are among us and sometimes get caught in our world, kind of in limbo, like the girl.
Violet: Genre films can be unique vessels for social commentary, and your films certainly are. Your previous film Dearest Sister highlights the corrosive, alienating effects that commerce can have on the community and human relationships.
Mattie Do: Greed can rot you from the inside. Yeah.
Violet: I feel that The Long Walk also echoes some of those themes; the film almost seems like a warning. Could you elaborate on that?
Mattie Do: Yes, Dearest Sister was definitely that—that being consumed by greed and materialism and consumerism can change you. Being obsessed with wealth can change you as a human being, and it can make you inhuman. In The Long Walk, the main warning is that grief and regret can consume you, and it can drive you toward selfishness and terrible decisions. It is about being completely overtaken by these emotions—loss and grief and regret. Selfishness is a human tendency, and that’s actually the old man’s downfall in the end. You know, we talk about being able to “move on” in our religion in Laos, the belief that you have to have ceremonial funeral rites done for you. Like, imagine if you had died in the woods from some truck hitting you, and only one person knew. And that one person doesn't tell anyone because they want to keep you for themselves. The old man was so consumed by losing his mother, the one incident that changed his life forever, that he came obsessed. He became so consumed by what he should've done, what he could have done. This guilt and regret just completely overtook him. And so he started to project it onto other people, by euthanizing all of these other women. And then by keeping them as ghost friends, as spiritual companions.
You know, I don't want to tell people to move on. I lost my mother, and I can never move on from having lost my mother, but these are scars that we're going to carry with us forever and once we accept that we are scarred by these traumatic events, then we can live life without having to have these scars define us.
Violet: I lost my mother in a similar way to yours, but a brain tumor, and this film really resonated with me on that level, of agonizing over what I could have or should have done if I’d known and at the end, I was just begging for her to die because she just wasn't herself.
Mattie Do: You know, I lived away from my mother when she started exhibiting the signs of her illness. I was on the east coast…she was in California, and to me, it felt like the other side of the fucking planet. And for a long time, you know, I would call her, and the doctors would just say like, oh, it's just acid reflux. And I was just saying, no, just follow the doctor's orders. And then one day I get this call from my aunt and she's like, you need to go home. Because your mother just got diagnosed with cancer. And when I went home, I saw how bad it was and that the doctors didn't even know she had cancer until she couldn't swallow.
A lot of me thought, what if I were home like a year earlier, and I started noticing that she had issues? What if we could have had treatment then? Could she still be here? You know, it's really unhealthy to think of things like that. And it's unhealthy for the character in the film too, who definitely thinks like that… definitely took the opportunity to try and change his fate, his mother's fate, and his own fate as a child. The film reflects this dark view I feel now: what if we could go back? I mean, would we expect a change? What if it was worse? Like what if it was fated? So maybe I got a few more months from my mother. She'd still die of cancer.
And my dog Mango, who I had to euthanize while we were writing this film. No matter what, he was 17 years old. But I had to make the decision to put him down, and I felt so much guilt that I was the one who had to end his life. And this kind of regret is just so difficult to live with and dwell on. And I guess in this film, it's almost like me telling myself that I can't think like that and that I can't continue feeling this guilt…like if I had done something different, maybe the outcome would be different.
Violet: Absolutely. I'm so sorry for your loss. I completely understand that feeling. Her tumor was so slow-growing, and something was wrong, but no one knew.
Mattie Do: No one knew…I'm sorry for your loss.
In the film, the ending is really bittersweet. I wouldn't say it was a happy ending because I'm not sure people like us get happy endings. Sometimes I think we get the ending the best that we can get. And that's, you know, the girl and the boy. At least they're together, but would you call it a happy ending? Because they don't get to move on. And I think maybe people like us, maybe the happiest ending that we can have is just the fact that we've learned to live with these scars that we have.
What I've learned most is, life is short, and we just don't know. We just don't know when that moment is going to be for us when we're the ones decaying. And so we have to find a way to make the most out of our lives and find a way to be proud of what we've left behind. And what I can say is at least I know that my mother was happy with what she left behind…beautiful memories of herself as a loving mother, a kind woman, and as a hardworking and generous woman. She made her mark on us and the people that she encountered and the people that she touched. And this is what I realized is important.
Violet: This film is so important to me.
Mattie Do: I’m really happy to hear that. When I make a film, I just want to reach the people who need it, who are looking for it, to who it will be special—the person who is trying to find a story like this is all that matters to me.