Even though the country of Laos only has thirteen produced films to its name, it’s already an exemplary proponent of equal opportunities. Female director Mattie Do accounts for two out of those thirteen titles, and even more impressively, both are ambitious horror films. In 2013, Do brought Chanthaly to Austin’s Fantastic Fest, and now she’s back with another unnerving Laotian tale by the name of Dearest Sister – a family affair haunted by greed and selfishness. No gimmicks or grading curves are needed to appreciate Laos’ budding local “Hollywood” scene, as Do helps put an entire country on the genre map with only her second feature film. No such thing as too little, too late!
Amphaiphun Phommapunya stars as a “lowly” villager (Nok) who’s called to Vientiane (Laos’ capital) so she can care for her sight-impaired cousin, Ana (Vilouna Phetmany). Nok is welcomed by Ana’s husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) upon her arrival, and she’s shown to her room inside their lavish home. Upon her first night, Nok hears screams coming from Ana’s room. She investigates, only to find Jakob calming his wife. This is how Nok is introduced to her cousin’s condition, which is certainly more than onset blindness. After some time passes, Nok realizes her cousin can see dead souls and communicate with them for unknown – yet lucrative – reasons. Can Nok put her greed aside and keep Ana’s best interests in her heart?
The horrors of Dearest Sister aren’t representative of straight-forward jump scares or expected deaths. Ana can always see advancing spirits through blurred waves, who stand there smoldering while what looks like black ash forms a deathly aura. Do is more interested in exploring issues of class (poverty vs. rich), along with betrayal by those closest to us and the strength of family. We get a taste of daily life in Laos from a cultural perspective that shows no cinematic inexperience, along with the struggles that might push characters towards such me-first survival tactics. This is my way of informing diehard thrill seekers that Do’s “dramatic horror” game is strong, but may not cause the squeals mainstreamers will be looking for.
That said, what Mattie Do DOES accomplish is unsettling, emotional and evocative of natural reactions. We’re gifted something more than plastic genre victims and a nasty slasher – Dearest Sister is a moral test that’s failed mightily by Nok, ending is hopeless despair. As the film evolves, Ana’s explained condition (the rules Do lays out) makes Nok’s actions more and more detestable, until we put ourselves in the poor girl’s shoes.
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Nok agrees to care for Ana so she can earn money for her family back home, but ends up never sending anything because fancy objects and personal gratification become her only motivators. Someone who’s never experienced financial freedom is granted wealth for the first time, and materialistic pressures can’t be fought off. Maybe she’d start sending money after buying a smartphone and a fancy purse, or maybe she’d just keep getting sexy club dresses and new hair styles. Maybe, but her selfishness causes greater conflicts since her newfound income depends completely on Ana’s suffering through supernatural connections.
Do’s manipulation of family lends itself to tension, as Ana’s warmness is met with Nok’s foolishness. Every time Ana thanks her and refers to her as “little sister,” the sting of deception burns like an itch. Nok is accepting her own fate every time she receives another paycheck at the expense of Ana’s pain, but blindly does so since she’s distracted by glitzy objects that erase any memory of the people she’s left/leaving behind. Phommapunya does well to always ensure Nok projects facial displeasure or watches nervously as Ana squirms and writhes in discomfort, which reminds of a fairy-tale parents might read to children in a lesson-teaching moment. Ana’s inability to decipher humans from ghosts creates an ongoing sense of dread inside a character who trusts nothing, while Do orchestrates other-worldly interactions that slowly creep under your skin as audiences learn the truth behind Ana’s undead communication.
This is an experience that’s more “creepy” and “spooky” than “horrifying,” because story reigns supreme in Dearest Sister. Mattie Do’s vision simmers low and consistent, never over or under-cooking her sizzling Laotian shocker. You’re in for the slow-build here, but it’s dealt with care as to not subvert a more intriguing ghost story with generics or unnecessary genre expediencies. This is all about the power of family, the pain caused by being taken advantage of and the sickening grasp of materialistic obsession. Ominous forms play second fiddle to a story of “sisters” who come together and are pulled apart with equal promise – a movie that sinks deeper into paranoia with each passing scene. Welcome to the big kid’s genre table, Laos!
Dearest Sister smolders and sears through haunting dread, becoming somewhat of a dark Laotian fairy tale.