Movie Review: Chanthaly (2013)

chanthaly

Seen: On my laptop with a downloaded HD file, a perk from the Nong Hak indigogo campaign.

Diagnosed with a debilitating heart condition in her childhood, 22-year-old Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) does not leave her house much. Her mother died in childbirth, and her doting father (Douangmany Soliphanh) raised her as best he could, but she has always felt the absence of a mother in her life. As an adult she lives quietly, running a small laundry service from their home with the help of her cousin, and playing with her adorable dog Moo. She starts experiencing visual and aural disturbances that might be her dead mother’s ghost, or might be a hallucinatory side-effect of her heart medication. Chanthaly becomes convinced her mother is trying to reach her, trying to tell her the truth about her death, and she gradually comes to distrust and resent her well-meaning but overprotective father.

I was initially interested in Chanthaly because of the story behind its making: director Mattie Do is both the first female filmmaker andfirst¬† horror filmmaker working in Laos, whose nascent film industry is small and limited. To make this movie she basically got together a small group of friends (plus her adorable dog, Mango) and set everything up at her house and just… made a movie. Which is pretty amazing. The film screened at some festivals but does not currently have any home release, so I was happy for the opportunity to receive a digital copy as a perk of Do’s fundraising campaign for her next project, Nong Hak.

Set entirely within the protagonist’s house, Chanthaly is a compelling, emotionally complex drama that employs horror tropes to emphasize the experiences of a troubled young woman. I’ll admit I was disappointed there wasn’t more actual horror–I was expecting something much scarier, I guess–but that’s just about the only criticism I have. The film plays out as a tense but evenly-paced drama as we watch the title character go about her day, confined to her house, interacting with few others save for family members and her neighbor, convinced her dead mother is trying to communicate with her, yearning for a more active life but also scared to move beyond her familiar surroundings. She is in many ways a product of a patriarchal society, with her illness acting as a metaphor for the quiet, weak role often assigned to women. The moments of horror are quick and sudden, mostly in the form of ghostly apparitions Chanthaly sees briefly in the dark. The story plays out gradually, allowing the viewer to become fully invested in the lead character’s situation and in the mystery of her visions. She believes so strongly that she’s somehow found a connection to her mother–the strong female role model she needs–that we too want to believe that it’s real, and not drug-induced hallucinations.

What really sold me on Chanthaly is the third act, when an unexpected twist completely changes the nature of the tale, but maintains the themes of love and loss. Here, the filmmakers expand upon the vague ancestral-ghost mythology that many cultures subscribe to, introducing a world where spirits reside in intensely bright versions of real homes, can implant memories into the living, and may even kill to maintain a veneer of happiness in the afterlife. The truth about Chanthaly’s ghostly visions is more complex than it seems, and indeed it is never fully explained, so that viewers may come to their own conclusions about our heroine’s troublesome visitor. It’s a fascinating prospect, and turns an already-interesting drama into a thought-provoking spiritual horror. Ultimately I was the most impressed with how moved I was by this film, likely because it reminded me of real loss, of real death, and though the film operates on a paranormal plane its handling of character and suffering felt utterly connected to actual experience.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The use of interiors and general themes reminded me of Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters, which is totally scary and would make a very cool double feature.

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