Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: CHANTHALY Is A Haunting Portrait Of Modern Day Laos

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Hailing from a country that has produced fewer than 10 feature films in its entire history, Chanthaly proves a modest yet potent little chiller that blends an unsettling slowburn ghost story with an enlightening portrait of women's roles and patriarchy in one of the world's few remaining hard line Marxist nations. 

Chanthaly marks a number of firsts in a country largely unfamiliar with homegrown cinema. Director Mattie Do is not only the first woman ever to make a feature film in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, but she has directed the nation's first ever horror film. As is the case in many Communist countries, the ruling party is generally uncomfortable with any depiction of an afterlife or the supernatural, and Do, together with her screenwriter husband Christopher Larsen, were forced to tread a very careful line if their film was ever to see the light of day.

Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) lives with her father in the Lao capital of Vientiane, but due to a hereditary heart condition that claimed her mother during childbirth, is rarely allowed beyond the high walls of her compound-like home. Clearly a stubborn and willful young woman, Chanthaly maintains a clandestine relationship with a neighbourhood boy, but her protective father goes to great lengths to see his daughter kept safe and chaste in the family home. However, when Chanthaly begins seeing spectral apparitions of her dead mother, and is plagued by memories of her she can't possibly have experienced, Chanthaly begins to question both the truth behind her mother's death and her own sanity. 

Do wisely keeps the scope of her debut feature modest, with the action confined to the same house as the film's heroine. Her only contact with the outside world is when she ventures beyond the main gates, or from the occasional visitor to their home, and likewise this is all we see of the mysterious outside world. As a result, the film builds both a sense of isolation and also claustrophobia, exacerbated by the visions that turn Chanthaly's only refuge into a haunted house of growing menace.

The small yet dedicated cast of non-professional actors acquit themselves admirably, with pop singer Amphaiphun Phimmapunya proving particularly effective as the frail heroine barely up to the task of dealing with her increasingly stressful situation. As her father, Douangmany Soliphanh is a vigilant and unrelenting disciplinarian, and his cold delivery only heightens Chanthaly's and our own frustrations at his unwillingness to entertain her fears.

The infrequent yet effective scares throughout the film, when the audience actually glimpses the perceived supernatural entity, show that Do has a clear understanding of horror movie grammar, allowing the "ghost" to creep slowly into the frame, rather than falling back on the clumsy jump scares and musical stings so prevalent throughout the genre in other countries.

The result is a fascinating peek at the dynamics of one of Asia's least known cultures, that manages to explain the contemporary roles within modern Lao society clearly and economically, while also succeeding as a ghost story that refuses to conform to the rules of neighbouring industries in Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan or anywhere else. It is no small achievement that Chanthaly exists at all, and worthy of genuine praise and attention for proving such an engaging and unsettling piece of work.
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