Dearest Sister (2016)
*Now streaming exclusively on Shudder.
As women make ever greater strides into the horror genre, one to watch is certainly Lao director Mattie Do, Laos’s first female director and first horror director. Her second horror feature Dearest Sister showed at Cannes in 2014, at last year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, and now finally sees a streaming release on AMC’s Shudder.
Dearest Sister tells the story of village girl Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) who travels to Vientiane, the national capital, to attend to her cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) who lost her eyesight years before. Nok is treated as an indentured servant, paid by Ana’s Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) to act as a companion and guide to his partially blind wife. As such, Nok occupies a nebulous class space – she lives in the house with Ana and Jakob and is treated with suspicion and eventually outright hostility by the two servants who sleep outside. But she’s also not quite family, working as she does for payment, which she’s supposed to send home to her parents.
Nok soon discovers that Ana’s blindness enables her to see and communicate with the dead. In a fit, Ana sees a ghost and begins muttering numbers, which Nok proceeds to play in the national lottery. She wins, discovering a way to obtain money quickly and without the knowledge of her cousin or her family. As the film proceeds, the dangerous nature of Nok’s game, her relationship with Ana, and the low-key horrors of class and femininity are drawn to the fore, producing an increasingly dark narrative that can only end one way.
Do’s film is restrained by contemporary horror standards, relying far more on low-key anxiety and implication than on gory horror (though there’s that too). The camera becomes increasingly disjointed, at times taking Ana’s perspective in foggy POV shots. Do often films in extreme close up, or through gates, bushes, railings, and windows, forcing viewers to constantly realign themselves within the cinematic space and with different perspectives. The cinematography has an imbalancing effect that serves to unnerve viewers even when apparently innocuous things are happening.
Dearest Sister offers up a dark, critical vision of Laos, mixing in contemporary concerns about class, language, and poverty with mythology, folk tales, and traditional structures. Nok strives for what her cousin has in the way of material comfort and security. The simple acts of purchasing an iPhone or going to a nightclub become transgressive acts, digging Nok deeper into a series of half-truths as she uses money meant for her family in order to obtain possessions. Ana’s class position is likewise tenuous and built on theft – a secondary plot involves Jakob figuring out how to dupe an inspector coming to investigate his company, which has been cutting corners and skimming money off the top. Ana’s visions are treated as hallucinations or tricks of the eye by Jakob and Ana’s doctors, but taken far more seriously by Nok, who accepts them as ghosts or psychic images.
In the interplay between Nok and Ana’s traditional backgrounds with the (white) modernity presented by Jakob, Dearest Sister develops a disturbing vision of a country mined for its resources, the extreme poverty of some citizens exploited as a support for the ruling classes. Nok runs into constant conflict with her cousin, who goes back and forth between insisting she act as a servant and insisting she act as a friend, and with the two servants in the house, who use their position to quietly torture their masters and lord it over Nok. Nok’s quiet subservience begins to give way to quiet domination, pushing the plot to its inexorable conclusion.
Dearest Sister gives unique insight into a country that has only recently begun developing a film industry of its own. And it bodes well for Laos to have directors like Mattie Do, pushing the envelope of the horror genre in a new direction that’s very much grounded in Lao culture and modernity.
Dearest Sister can be streamed on Shudder, starting today.