A ghostly story that hides something far more sharp and sinister…
Mattie Do’s second feature continues the ghostly themes of Chanthaly (ຈັນທະລີ, 2013) with Dearest Sister (ນ້ອງຮັກ, Nong Hak), but those expecting the familiar ghostly visions of Asian horror will find a far more barbed comment on Laos society from its first (and, according to the press release, still only) female director. The film reunites Do with the star of her debut Chanthaly, Amphaiphun Phommapunya, alongside music and radio personality Vilouna Phetmany and Estonian actor Tambet Tuisk. Already impressing audiences at festivals around the world, Dearest Sister recently screened at Fantastic Fest 2016 and will also play the 60th BFI London Film Festival.
Naïve village girl Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) is sent by her family to the bright lights of capitol city Vientiane to look after distant relative Ana (Vilouna Phetmany), quickly losing her sight, much to the concern of her husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk), a foreigner. With the serving staff thinking the lady of the house to be crazy with her claims of visions, and Nok stuck between them and her cousin, never really fitting in with either party, we arrive at a context that wouldn’t seem out of place in a classic British novel like Jane Eyre or Rebecca. And such rigid observations of class being deeply appropriate.
Nok soon discovers that there’s something in Ana’s ghostly visions; by chance she tries repeated numbers on a lottery ticket and finds they win. Always at the bottom of the pecking order, even from her time at the village, Nok soon starts to explore the freedom and temptations of the city that her small wins afford her. Bringing her no more happiness, she begins to hate the person that brought her to this place. But just what are these visions, and what secrets do they hold?
Audiences will find Ana’s ghostly apparitions familiar, immediately bringing to mind The Eye and countless other horrors from across Asia, both good and bad, but don’t be misguided into thinking that is all director Mattie Do’s film has to offer, nor the importance in the film coming from Laos. Still very much a film industry in its infancy, with filmmakers struggling to create films under a communist regime that attempts to give artists some freedom, but censors any overt political or social commentary. Hardly surprising then that Do should coat her message under the guise of a horror. But then there’s some irony in the fact those compromises immediately make the film a more sellable prospect in other territories.
And what a scathing comment it is. Do and writer Christopher Larsen find little sympathy for any of the characters in the social strata she presents. From young Nok, whose desperate avarice quickly outstrips her innocence and common civility; to the house staff who treat both masters and servants with contempt; to the foreigner who wants to exploit developments in a growing economy with no thought for regulations. Do has much in common with other women filmmakers in the horror genre, finding little solidarity amongst her female characters – quite the opposite in fact. Increasingly, against the mould for the normally distant ‘lady of the house’, it’s Ana’s character that builds empathy – despite being derided as taking one of the few options open to her to raise her status by marrying a foreigner, it’s obvious she loves Jakub. Only Jakub’s colleague Kenji (Brandon Hashimoto) has any true moral compass.
It’s a criticism very much at the heart of what Do wants to say. The daughter of one of the Lao refugees who fled the communist revolution of 1975, she and her father only returned a few years ago when they knew it would be safe for them. Such perspective can be found here, describing herself as an ‘insider/outsider’. Following her debut feature, she so believed in this project that she created a kickstarter to fund it, impressively realising 134% of the target of US$30,000. The result is sharp, and not only in content. Cinematographer Mart Ratassepp helps compose a good-looking film that hardly feels cheap, with effects that don’t over stretch themselves. Zohar Michel’s editing is tight, if sometimes a little harsh.
The result is a striking genre film with depth, and therein lies the bite. A cut (or two) above your average Asian horror.