Short Film Review: A Long Way Home (2018)


A Long Way Home by Lao New Wave cinema cofounder, Xaisongkharm Induangchanthy sees a Lao-American man fulfilling his father’s dying wish - to bring his ashes back home to Laos. Crucially, this story has a historical backdrop, that of the 1975 struggle in Laos when the Community party came to power and many who fought against the government were forced to flee their homeland.

The plot in itself however is as seemingly straightforward as it can be. James, the main character arrives in Laos with prejudices and reservations about Laos and his father’s side of the family. He and his mother are instantly worried about family members asking him for money, as well as being reluctant to leave the city itself for the countryside. As with many stories of diaspora, there is a conflicting inner struggle of internalised Orientalism and a struggle for identity and belonging that gently bubbles away at the character.

The uptight James is then paired up with his native, cultural-clashing counterpart, cousin Joi on this Mekong River/road movie. Joi is also as you’d expect - cheerful and optimistic, completely at ease with his homeland and the slow pace of the countryside. As Joi reconnects with old friends on his own short nostalgic trip, the two begin to clash.

Often, as you watch the film, one feels ‘ahead’ of this quiet familiar setup. Every turn of events seems predictable but it is a great credit to Induangchanthy - an Asian Film Academy alumni and Fulbright Scholar - that this was not a problem because of how the film is sincerely told.

The film also shines best when it delves into its picturesque vistas and scenes of daily cultural life, as we witness the two incompatible cousins try to complete their journey. You often get a sense of the wonder and charm of Laos. It also gives the familiar premise a refreshingly novel palette and background which sustains enough interest and investment. Old story, well and newly told is a perfectly good combination here.

Unfortunately, this is also a bit of a double-edged sword. I did find that it occasionally strays into a middling grey area, slipping into a feeling that resembles more of a tourism advertisement montage than a story. This comes more so as Laos and its culture is seen, but feels largely passive and indirect in its interaction with the main character. The only exception comes in the films final scenes being also uncoincidentally its most moving because of a more direct clash.

I do suspect the fact that the film plays itself out largely by the numbers may be an issue for some with lesser patience. Yet I believe credit should be given to the story's adamant restraint, as the film utterly repays your patience by the end. You may be fully aware of what's coming but the payoff as James' dawning realization of his family's love, will still hit hard and could only have borne fruit from the slow build prior. The film has enough confidence to pull off this big internal switch in emotion, proving that even if audiences are aware of the a director's narrative magic tricks, a competent storyteller can still cast a spell on you.

Overall, the film still navigates itself really well due to such sincerity of intent and love for showcasing Laos. It is strongly imbued as well with a tremendous sense of longing and lost time, as its final scene conjures to mind, the enduring pain and effects of sociopolitical struggle on its people.

One can truly feel a purity in the manner the film was made as well as in its significant political context. With A Long Way Home, Induangchanthy has gifted us a small window into a country that has begun to give itself a full-throated and dynamic cinematic voice - now able to movingly tell such similar stories of untold pain and struggles such as James'.

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As part of their fundraising and community engagement initiatives, the Lockdown Cinema Club programmed a one-week screening of selected Southeast Asian short films from 15-22 May. Head here to find out more: https://www.facebook.com/lockdowncinemaclub/

Written by Rifyal Giffari

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