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.
Every culture produces its own monsters and ghosts, born of the particular beliefs and traumas of its people. And so, in Dearest Sister, only the second horror film to be made in the developing country of Laos, these ghosts are intricately connected to greed, poverty and fears of exploitation. Lao’s only female film director, Mattie Do (Chanthaly, 2012), has made a superb slow-burn supernatural thriller that’s as much a portrait of contemporary Lao class differences, as it is an effectively spooky domestic chiller.
The story begins when a poor young woman, Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya), travels from her remote village to live in the capital city of Vientiane, where she will serve as a paid companion to her wealthier distant cousin, Ana (played by Laos superstar, model and singer, Vilouna Phetmany). Ana is suffering from a mysterious illness that’s causing her to go blind, and as her vision blurs she sees disturbing images and ghosts who seem to be sending her messages and warnings, causing her to cut and injure herself. Her loving Estonian husband, Jakob (Tambet Tuisk), is worried about her, but he’s also preoccupied with his failing NGO engineering business which is under investigation for cutting corners and skimming profits.
Watchful and insecure, the poor cousin Nok is impressed by the wealth she sees in the big house. There’s air-conditioning for one thing. And servants (Manivanh Boulom and Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) who seem resentful of Nok, but also refuse to let her help them with household tasks. Slowly, Nok ingratiates herself with the blind woman, comforting her during her frightening episodes, and quickly realising that the numbers Ana recites during these fits are winning lottery numbers that Nok can use to improve her own financial situation.
"The film shows the ugliness of greed as Nok increasingly exploits her cousin’s suffering and refuses, time and time again, to make the morally correct decisions."
Born in California to Lao parents and relocating to Laos as an adult, director Mattie Do has both and insider and outsider perspective. As with her first film, she’s working again with a screenplay by her husband Christopher Larsen, and together they skilfully and unromantically convey the longings of the poor for the global trappings of wealth – pretty clothes, expensive blonde hair tips, dinner in nice restaurants with fawning waiters, and of course the latest iPhone. We see the local girls who just want to snag a white husband to secure their future, and it’s hard to fault their cold logic. Who can blame Nok for wanting these things, and for using her lottery winnings for herself instead of sending the money back to her family as promised? And yet, the film shows the ugliness of greed as Nok increasingly exploits her cousin’s suffering and refuses, time and time again, to make the morally correct decisions.
As befitting a story about a blind woman, the cinematography by Mart Ratassep is intimate and shallow in focus, and editing by Zohar Michel creates a slowly mounting tension that’s rewarded in short sharp moments of horror as we come to understand the logic of this particular spirit world. The ghosts appear heralded by floating ash or buzzing flies. Sometimes they’re bloody and rotting, but it’s the living people we really need to worry about in this stylish and thought-provoking film.
Dearest Sister premiered at Monster Fest 2016 and screened again at the 2017 Stranger With My Face International Film Festival in Hobart, where it won Runner Up Best Film.