Written by Tron Delapp
When discussing the output of films from other countries, Laos is not one of the first, or even fifteenth, mentioned. To date, Laos has only produced seven motion pictures, of which Dearest Sister is the seventh, and only two horror films, of which Dearest Sister is the second following Chanthaly, both directed by Mattie Do. Mattie Do is the only horror film director and the first woman director in Laos. In person, Mattie Do is vivacious, excited about film, extremely knowledgeable and tremendously fun to talk to, all of which made it very hard to disappoint her every time she asked me if I was going to be able to attend Dearest Sister in the theater at Fantastic Fest. Even with two showings and an additional (and much deserved) buzz screening added I was unable to work it into my schedule despite it hitting my ‘must see’ list this year, a constant FF problem as they program so much great stuff that inevitably something gets left off your schedule. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology and my ability to write occasionally for Antonio Quintero, I was able to finally sit down with Dearest Sister and see exactly what it was Mattie Do had up her sleeve and hopefully, in some small way, pay her back with this review.
Dearest Sister is a horror film that would be much better served if described as a ‘Supernatural Thriller.’ See, what Mattie Do did here is made an excellent film with a tightly complex story that just happens to have a little horror in it rather than just serve up a standard horror film. The story centers around a rich woman, Ana, who lives in Laos with her husband, Jakob. Ana is losing her sight and is prone to ‘hurting herself.’ Jakob, who has cut a few corners at work and is trying to save a failing business, persuades her to bring in some help so they basically buy a distant cousin from the country, Nok, to come help Ana at the house and take care of her as her eyesight worsens with the promise of money to be sent back to the relatives. Nok is at once separated from the normal servants, who are particularly shady, and kept around to be Ana’s personal assistant, which begins to cause tension among Nok and the rest of the serving staff. Ana is none too kind to her either, being rich and all but is so desperate for attention and companionship, which she has not been getting from Jakob as his work problems escalate, that a bond forms between her and Nok, Nok herself desperately wants to shrug off her provincial life of poverty and uncertainty and become the lady that her rich cousin Ana is. Nok takes to “borrowing” money for a phone card and keeping her salary for new clothes without sending money back to the family. Things begin to change for Nok when she sees Ana have an ‘episode,’ the pain of which causes her to mumble random numbers aloud which she does not remember later. Nok realizes two things; first, that Ana sees ghosts and isn’t hurting herself at all, the ghosts are and second, that those numbers Ana mumbles just might be the winning lottery numbers. Of course Nok does the right thing and runs off to buy herself a ticket which, as you’d expect, wins. Of course Nok does the right thing and keeps this knowledge to herself. Of course Nok does the right thing and keeps all the money for herself, buying new clothes and a new smartphone and begins to transform herself to more of a city girl which is easy with a ready made scam like this in her lap. Of course Ana keeps seeing ghosts which Nok conveniently waits around for until they’ve harmed her a little before she rescues Ana. Of course things cannot continue as they’ve been going.
Things begin to change when Jakob decides to bribe the U.N. to save his business. He cannot go back to Europe and things look pretty dismal in Laos but Ana does not want to move anywhere else. The other servants are tired of Nok and figure she’s been stealing so they rob and torment her. Nok is caught by Ana coming home from a night on the town and figures out either Nok is stealing or the numbers she gets from the ghosts mean something. Either way, Jakob schedules Ana for some experimental eye surgery which makes her happy as she will finally be able to see and can stop viewing ghosts. While they are gone, the servants throw a wild party and are both caught and fired. This increases Ana’s responsibilities as Jakob will be gone for work and someone has to take care of Ana, change her bandages, giver her medicine and generally help her recover. Someone who’s ghost-farming has come to an end. Someone who has been told by Ana that they know she hasn’t been sending money home. Someone who has been told by Ana that when her eyesight returns, there will be no need for her services any longer. Someone who wants to be rich…..
Even with that summation there are a ton of other little plot complexities, such as the ghosts who harm Ana not being dead people until the next day and what the story with the other servants really is but it should be enough to illustrate how much plot and depth of characterization Mattie Do has put into Dearest Sister. That’s not to say it’s not tense or even scary in places as the ghosts look wonderful and Ana’s reactions to them really help sell the fear she feels with every encounter but Mattie Do is a canny director, choosing to deliver a film that acts more as a thriller about money, family, greed and betrayal than emphasizing the ghosts or the supernatural, which serve more to help move the story along rather than simply turn it into Paranormal Activity. Mattie Do’s use of shot selection and a great focus on specific elements within a scene really draws you into Laotian life and helps the audience gain a greater understanding of the culture, the people and their troubles before the ghosts even make an appearance. It is this deft hand at film-making that elevates Mattie Do’s work from a simple horror to film to a genuine suspense-thriller that has supernatural elements to it and also one of the many reasons I recommend this film. I was able to view it with a gore aficionado and a traditional horror fan and both were completely surprised by how much they enjoyed a film that was neither gory nor traditional. I’m betting if you watched Dearest Sister when it comes out you are sure to feel the same way which is why it’s HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.