Starring: Amphaiphun Phimmapunya, Douangmany Soliphanh, Soukchinda Duangkhamchan
Director: Mattie Do
Running Time: 99 mins
Chanthaly is a Lao film about a young woman who spends her days locked up in her home, longing for her dead mother, and suspecting that her father is hiding a secret about her death.
I was really impressed by this film. Apart from the fact that I’ve never seen anything from Laos before, Chanthaly is a very well-directed, well-written and well-acted film, complete with an engrossing emotional story that’s paired with great tension and an eerie atmosphere right the way through, counteracting a somewhat slow pace to make a thoroughly engrossing watch from beginning to end.
Although this film is billed as a horror, it’s more of a psychological drama that blends elements of the horror genre within. That does mean that there are a couple of jumpscares, and the middle act above feels very ghostly and sharply mysterious, but what really works well about Chanthaly is the way in which we see the state of our main character’s mind change and fall apart over the course of a difficult period in her young life.
From the opening scene, there’s a strong air of mystery about this movie, as we see Chanthaly’s father rather sharply rejecting all of her questions about her dead mother, saying that she died in childbirth, contrary to Chanthaly’s memories of being cared for during the early years of her life. The uncertainty of what her father is hiding gets the film off to an immediately intriuging start, and that continues through as we learn more and more about her situation and the history of her family.
What’s more is that Chanthaly is forced to stay in her home by her father, under the excuse that her heart condition means she is too weak to ever go outside, despite invitations from her friends and family on a regular basis. As a result, she begins to grow increasingly frustrated, which is where the film’s most dramatic and exciting period comes in.
So, after a mysterious opening act, the movie grows well into a very tense middle portion, where we see Chanthaly locking heads with her father, and the beginning of some ghostly and incredibly eerie happenings.
Of course, I won’t spoil the story, but suffice to say that the film bucks the trend of horror movies that start with a strong dramatic concept and then descend to generic and dull scarefests, and in fact improves more and more with the introduction of some very unpredictable events, and an ingenious final act that really blew me away.
Director Mattie Do does a fantastic job throughout the whole film, taking a small budget and using it to make a film that feels, for the most part, like something you’d see in cinemas across the world. With the exception of occasional editing errors, I absolutely loved the way Do directed this film, not only crafting a powerfully eerie atmosphere from the beginning, but also introducing fascinating themes through striking and very unqiue direction, with the film’s final act giving an incredible depiction of the concept of life, death and the afterlife, in a more impressive and striking way than I’ve seen from anything in Hollywood.
The performances are also pretty strong here. Amphaiphun Phimmapunya is excellent as Chanthaly, pulling off both the weaker and unexpectedly fierce sides of her character, bringing real drama and energy to the central focus of the film, while Douangmany Soliphanh is also great as the father, appearing mysterious enough for you to suspect him of wrongdoing in his ambiguity, but also with a good amount of heart to appear convincing as a genuinely loving father.
All in all, I really liked Chanthaly, and although it is a film that moves along at a rather slow pace (sometimes a little too slow for its own good), it is full of riveting drama and tension, complete with striking and unique direction, strong performances, and a fascinating story that had me thoroughly engrossed from beginning to end, which is why I’m giving it a 7.7.