Mattie Do somehow makes this Laotian drama with horror elements work despite a convoluted denouement.
Dir. Mattie Do
2016 | Laos | Drama/Horror | 97 mins | 2.35:1 | Lao, Estonian & English
PG13 (passed clean) for horror and coarse language
Cast: Amphaiphun Phommapunya, Vilouna Phetmany, Tambet Tuisk
Plot: A village girl travels to the Lao capital, Vientiane, to care for her rich cousin who has lost her sight and gained the ability to communicate with the dead.
International Sales: Raven Banner
Subject Matter: Moderate – Communication with the dead, Pre-destiny
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Horrorthon – GV Suntec
First Published: 24 Nov 2017
Laos’ first submission to the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film category is unlikely to create any waves in America, but as a low-budget, indie horror-drama, Dearest Sister shows that it is possible to produce a good film with extremely tight resources.
Directed by Mattie Do, who is Laos’ first female director, Dearest Sister is her second feature after Chanthaly (2012), also a horror movie. Both films share a similar preoccupation—the communication between the spectral and the living—and center on a woman with some debilitating sickness.
In Dearest Sister, Ana, the woman in question, inexplicably loses her sight, but gains an otherworldly sense of being able to detect ghostly presences.
Do’s film is told from the perspective of Nok, who accepts Ana’s paid offer to take care of her. Raised in an impoverished village, Nok senses an opportunity to make ends meet, travelling to the capital to work in her rich cousin’s house.
Played by Amphaiphun Phimmapunya with equal curiosity and trepidation, Nok tries to adapt to her new surroundings and acquaint with Ana’s Estonian husband (who seems to be making bad business deals) and her seemingly sinister maid (who finds sadistic joy in furniture moving causing Ana to lose the interior geography of her house, thus affecting her navigation).
Choked by the claustrophobia of staying indoors for entire days, Nok finds a sense of release whenever she is asked to run some errands. More importantly, she finds solace in buying lottery tickets from a street vendor.
Dearest Sister works as a drama about the rich-poor divide, materialism and cultural differences between rural and urban upbringing.
In one sequence, when Ana is away on a short trip, Nok tries on her cousin’s clothes to visit a bar, in a bid to pass off as a middle-class Laotian woman in need of companionship. This is the film’s most distinctive moment of clarity—we could never be anyone else but our own.
But let’s not forget Do’s work is also terrifying, with horror elements and a good measure of misdirection setting up some truly suspenseful scenes. Horror also meets superstition and pre-destiny as Nok discovers something about Ana to the former’s advantage.
The narrative builds up to a convoluted denouement that is slightly protracted, only to be saved by the ambiguity of the final shot, which rightly offers no closure.