(2012; director: Mattie Do; writer: Chris Larsen; language: Lao; original title: ຈັນທະລີ)
Laos’s film industry is fairly young; under Communist rule since 1975, its film output was for a long time limited to government-issued propaganda. However, the last decade or so has seen the government open up to the potential of an independent film industry, and a clutch of feature films have emerged. The Ministry of Information and Culture still has to approve all scripts, which means that these films have tended to play it safe. This makes the film Chanthaly, from rising star Mattie Do, all the more interesting, as it bears the distinction not only of being the first Lao feature directed by a woman, but also the first Lao horror film – a genre far from government propaganda or tourist-tempting rom-coms. Chanthaly was thus an obvious choice for my Laos entry, as well as a chance to widen the generic horizons of the blog so far.
Sickly Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) lives in Vientiane with her conservative, overprotective father (Douangmany Soliphanh) and her greyhound Moo. She has grown up believing that her mother died giving birth to her, weakened by the same heart condition that Chan herself has inherited. Forbidden from leaving the house and walled-in yard, the lonely and bored Chanthaly spends her days making her father’s meals and operating a small-scale laundry business her father set up for her. Her life takes a disturbing turn when she starts to have visions of a ghostly woman, and discovers memories of events that her father says could never have occurred. How did her mother really die, and has her spirit actually departed? Is Chan’s mind playing tricks, or is her mother trying to get a message to her? And if she must choose between her health, her sanity, and her mother’s ghost, which is the right choice?
Although branded a horror film, I don’t think I’d really describe it as scary. Director Do points out that this is largely a cultural thing (in an interview with Little Laos on the Prairie):
Since we weren’t ever thinking about this film having much of a life outside of Laos, we tried–and I don’t know how successful we were at this–to really think about making a movie that would be scary for a Lao audience, understanding that a Lao audience has never seen a scary Lao movie. If that makes sense. And then we had to balance that with what we could actually do with our limited budget and resources, and with what a wary Department of Cinema would actually approve. So it’s not a blood and guts horror movie, and it’s not a monster movie.After I got my approval, I sat down and read the script again and I thought, ‘Wow, from a western horror standpoint, I don’t know if this is going to be scary.’ But then at the Luang Prabang Film Festival the audience was screaming and little kids were covering their eyes. So much of the film revolves around the ubiquitous spirit house and Lao superstition, and although the film gives a little bit of detail about that for an audience that might be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Lao beliefs, there are a few things in the movie that are really terrifying to our Lao audience that might not even be unsettling for a foreign audience.
While some of the chills may very well have escaped me, the film was nevertheless a distinctly unsettling one. Instead of jump-in-your-seat scares or clutch-your-pillow terror, the film opts for a slow build-up of unease that is as much emotional as it is physical. This tension and uncertainty is underscored by an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. Disjointed scenes flick from day to night, dream to reality, presence to absence, drawing the viewer into Chanthaly’s increasingly disturbed emotional and mental state. And while I often find that horror films lose some of their power as the story progresses and the hidden threat is revealed, Chanthaly is in many ways the opposite – it’s when the true nature of the ghost is unveiled that everything starts to get sad and horrible.
While not qualified to judge how distinctly Lao the film is, to me it felt like a different approach to ghosts than anything I’ve seen in Western, Japanese, or even neighbouring Thai horror films. As Do mentions in the quote above, the film’s ghost is rooted in the animist beliefs held by many Lao alongside the widespread Buddhist faith. According to these beliefs spirits (phi) co-exist with mortals, and can be placated with offerings in the ‘spirit houses’ found outside many Laos homes and buildings. Particularly important for this film are the phi phetu, malevolent spirits of those who die violently or in childbirth. From this perspective, there’s probably a lot to be scared of when Chan starts seeing the ghost of her mother, particularly after her father angrily knocks over their spirit house.
Not knowing anything about Laos beliefs before seeing the film, I found the destruction of the spirit house more emotional than dread-inducing; for Chan, it was a key spiritual link to her mother, and it felt like a violation of both women when Chan’s father knocked it down. And for me, it was the film’s poignant treatment of the supernatural that set it apart from other horror films I’ve seen. Supposedly, ghosts and the undead are frightening because they confront us with a deep-rooted fear of death. But any fear Chanthaly has of phi phetu or her own death is outweighed by longing for her mother. The discomfort comes as both viewer and protagonist try to figure out if these feelings are sensible.
And while a horror film protagonist trying to figure out if she’s crazy may not be a particularly new idea, Chanthaly gives the trope resonance by charging it with broader social tensions. Whether Chan is really seeing ghosts, or should simply submit to meds that don’t give her hallucinations, is a loaded question given that Laos’ Communist government has frowned upon the traditional belief systems and attempted to promote a rational atheism. But perhaps even more significant is the film’s treatment of gender roles and women’s struggle for self-determination. Chanthaly’s disobedience in pursuit of her mother’s ghost can be seen as a rejection of her father’s control over her life.
Do is steadfastly humble about the making of Chanthaly, but perhaps her greatest accomplishment is that she makes the most out of her limited resources. Shooting the entire film in her apartment only served to heighten the sense of claustrophobia, and although featuring mainly non-professional actors, the film was impeccably cast and well-acted. Waif-like pop-singer Phimmapunya makes almost tangible her character’s physical frailty and mental listlessness, without giving over to the grating docile passivity of many Cinderella figures. It’s a complex part, and Phimmapunya inhabits it. Soliphanh, too, is excellent as Chan’s father, managing to make the character sympathetic and even sweetly tragic, rather than simply an overbearing patriarch.
Even the bit parts are bursting with character; although only seen through Chanthaly’s eyes, I believed in them enough to imagine what their lives might look like beyond her limited view. And no discussion of the film’s acting would be complete without heaping praise on Do’s own Mango as Moo, one of the most expressive dog actors I’ve seen in a while. Even director Do acknowledges, in a drunken review of her own film (apparently it’s a thing over at Twitchfilm), that Moo is one of the film’s star turns. (For those like my sister Laura who need to know, in this horror film the dog doesn’t die).
Perhaps the one disappointment I had with the film in the context of this blog is that Chanthaly‘s insular focus meant that very little of Laos actually made it onto the screen – not even the cityscapes of Vientiane where the film is set. I do however feel like I learned a bit about urban Lao life in terms of chafing and pernicious gender roles, and a particular anxiety over the role of religion and superstition in a modernising, politically secular Communist country. I also learned that Lao ghosts are in a class of their own.
Shoutout: The Rocket (2013; dir: Kim Mordaunt).
For an international audience wanting a more general (but arguably less ‘authentic’) view of Laos, a film like Australian director Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket is worth a watch. Made by foreigners and thus not subject to in-production censorship by the Laos government, The Rocket touches on governmental corruption and abuse, the legacy of the American invasion (in terms of live shells littering the landscape, and persecution of the Hmong), Laos’ poverty and exploitation by richer nations, a range of gorgeous jungle scenery, and some real footage of an impressive (and startlingly dangerous) rocket festival. But while it’s a good film and well worth a watch, it remains a film made by and ultimately for foreigners. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but the contrast between it and Chanthaly has prompted me to reconsider the politics of the Western gaze and cinetourism, questions which I’m still chewing over.