Review: Chanthaly (2012)

Mattie Do’s Chanthaly (2012) opens with warm hues filling the screen: a young girl named Chanthaly, affectionately nicknamed as Chan, skips to her home, her father holding her hand, calling out for her mother. When she opens the door, her father tells her to turn around and close her eyes. We see dangling feet and a chair kicked to the side, then a knife and the tell-tale sight of rivulets of red streaming down a forearm. Amazingly enough, Chanthaly’s mother is still half-conscious, pleading with her father to allow Chanthaly to turn around as she wants to see her daughter’s face. 

The first few minutes of Chanthaly are arguably its best, where the premise is set for a childhood clouded by trauma, absence, and not knowing. The camera work is tight––conveying the sense of panic, mild chaos, and confusion when confronted with such a scene––without a score, all we have is ambient noise, dialogue, items being moved, footsteps. Grounded in reality, we find ourselves confronted with images of a telephone cord around the neck is kept in focus more than her mother’s face, a knife with fresh blood: though typical, the imagery works well here. 

Beyond that, if, like me, you’re looking for a horror film that commands that suspension of belief, I’d advise you to comply with Chanthaly’s father to “turn around and close your eyes” as the rest of the film simply fails to do justice to the initial first few minutes. By its midpoint, it’s shifted from what could have been a fairly decent horror film, to a film that was, for the most part, met more so with laughter than fear (thanks to overt product placements of Revlon and Namkhong Beer, in particular), when I sat in the Oldham Theatre during the Asian Film Archive’s latest programme of Asian horror films, State of Motion 2019: A Fear of Monsters, this past Wednesday.

The plot is straightforward enough, a now 22-year-old Chanthaly (played by Amphaiphun Phimmapuny) suffers from a hereditary heart condition. Living at home with her overprotective father (Douangmany Soliphanh), she has her own laundry business which she runs from home with the help of her cousin, Bee (Khouan Souliyabapha) from within the confines of her gated home. With little contact with the outside world, she’s often visited by her hopelessly enamoured childhood friend, Thong (Soukchinda Duangkhamchan). Coinciding with memories of the few moments she had with her mother and exacerbated by her medication’s hallucinatory side effects, Chanthaly begins to see what she believes to be her mother’s spirit as a ghostly apparition. Coupled with the usual tensions between father and daughter, audiences are pulled into a domestic drama of the unspoken maternal figure, with Chanthaly’s father arguing that her mother died in childbirth despite the scene that the film first opened with.

More of a psychological drama than a horror, Chanthaly plays upon the classic conundrum of symptoms of illness manifesting as the supernatural––when taken into the context of Laotian superstition, medicines as well as alcohol here seem to alter the extent to which the mind is open, vulnerable, and receptive to the netherworld. As Chanthaly’s childhood friend Thong explains, “the more attention you pay to the spirits, the more power they have” foreshadowing the events that take place towards the end of the film. In essence, what makes Chanthaly successful is its emphasis on the locally relevant––it takes little cues from Western horror tropes, but rather finds itself amid the themes and symbols often portrayed in Asian and more specifically, Southeast Asian horror cinema. From the female malevolent spirit donning a white dress with long black hair to superstitions surrounding spirit worship and the maintenance (or lack thereof) of their dwellings, Chanthaly touches upon all such elements. Without a score to drive the narrative and only the occasional ambient, droning tones during Chanthaly’s encounters with the ghost in her home, the film almost appears to borrow from the tradition recently popularised in more slow, meditative approaches to psychological dramas, reminding me of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).

Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible to frame a discussion on Chanthaly without touching upon the context within which it was made. Noted for being the first film to be directed and written entirely within Laos and the first Laotian horror film to be directed by a woman, the film, in itself, is of importance as a cultural product. With no formal training in filmmaking and no prior experience in the slightest in directing, Chanthaly is Do’s first film––to have made a complete feature-length one, is certainly quite the feat. Beyond that, Laos is known for its fairly underdeveloped local film industry, historically limited to early propaganda films shot in the 70s and 80s. Do herself explained in an interview that the production of the film was contingent upon the approval of the country’s Department of Cinema, further highlighting the extent to which sociopolitical factors have largely determined the resulting product. In fact, Do herself admitted that the film may not necessarily align with the Western traditions of horror.

With that in mind, I certainly can’t fault the film for doing what it could. Beyond the veil of superstition and symbolism, Chanthaly is ultimately a film about a father and a daughter and all the things that can and cannot be spoken about between the two. 

** Note: If you've found your way here via Facebook, you'll know that as very kindly explained to me by the film's official Facebook page in the comments section of this review when it was shared, the child in the beginning wasn't actually Chanthaly. Again, part of the twist you read about, but sorry for the spoilers for those who've gotten here via other channels).

Chanthaly was screened as part of the Asian Film Archive’s ongoing film programme, State of Motion 2019: A Fear of Monsters. Made available by Do to the public domain, you can watch the film in full on YouTube.

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore.

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