With Chanthaly, everything is relative. The film itself is relative to the world within the film, as well as its genre, or lack of such. Chanthaly is being marketed as a horror film, and for mainstream audiences, this could be true. However, real horror fans may not find much to sink their teeth into. Chanthaly starts off with a flashback in which the main character, as a child, may or may not see her mother’s legs hanging from the rafters. Indeed, seeing a dead parent is horrific, but such a youth peeping through her fingers may see this as part of a game. (Think Marlon Brando’s demise in The Godfather series.)
Cut to the present: Chanthaly is a very thin, sickly young girl locked away within her gated home. This concept is a mirror for the country in which it was filmed, Laos. Since Laos is a communist country, I’m quite certain that the government didn’t realize that this film was happening, which in itself is quite the feat. Director Mattie Do is the first female filmmaker as well as the first horror filmmaker in the country’s history—as well as only the ninth filmmaker in Laos’ history. I believe this is exactly why we should give Chanthaly attention. An act of bravery in the arts is likely to have consequences in such conditions; let’s hope that they are good ones.
But back to the film itself. Chanthaly is a slow drama with supernatural elements. Again, “slow” is one of those relative terms. It is not slow because it is boring; the film takes its time to build and develop its characters. Chanthaly’s search for who her mother was in the midst of her father’s oppression, cover-ups and outright lies are a direct metaphor for living in Laos, or any communist country. Chanthaly eventually discovers and invites her mother’s ghost into communicating with her, which could be seen as Do attempting to create a filmmaking career with the outside world. Chanthaly’s continuous oppression, again, is Laos trying to hold Do—or anyone in the arts or free speech—down. It comes as no surprise that Chanthaly withers and dies after repeated and relentless subjugation. It’s then saddening, but not surprising, to see that when Chanthaly finally connects with her mother in the spiritual realm, to see that she doesn’t believe that the woman is indeed, her mother. She must watch as she is replaced by her cousin in the hearts and minds of her father and a former suitor.
But enough with the spoilers. Chanthaly is an important film, one that needs other brave souls to let it live, thrive, and flourish. Here’s hoping that Mattie Do can escape Laos and continue to make films.