Mattie Do’s sophomore effort is historically significant. Hailing from Laos, a country with no production companies and zero distribution options, Mattie Do is not only Laos’ only female filmmaker, but also the country’s only horror filmmaker. Dearest Sister marks Laos’ 13th film. Ever. So sure, this would technically make every film made in Laos a historical event, but considering that Laos is a one-party socialist republic, that makes Mattie Do, a female horror filmmaker working in a Marxist setting, one of the most significant filmmakers in world cinema today. In short, she’s my hero.
Do’s latest centers on Nok, a village girl sent to Lao capital Vientiane to care for her rich cousin, Ana, who’s lost her sight. In return, Nok is to send back the money earned to provide for her family. As kin to Ana, the hired help ostracizes Nok, yet she’s too distant of a relative to Ana to be accepted by her either. Alone and rebuffed, Nok’s fate changes when she realizes that Ana’s blindness comes with a unique side effect; Ana’s become a magnet for the dead.
Blending in traditional ghost story elements, Dearest Sister is more of a reflection on cultural norms and gender roles. With the weight of familial responsibilities weighing heavily on her shoulders, Nok is thrust into an environment far more luxurious than her village. Her youth, inexperience, and loneliness contributes to a new feeling; temptation. At the other end of the spectrum lie Ana, a woman grown accustomed to a more comfortable lifestyle by marrying a foreigner. Like her cousin, she too feels alone, as her husband Jakob is often away dealing with his business. Not only is there a cultural gap between husband and wife, but Ana’s worsening eye condition is isolating. Nok and Ana represent two sides of the same coin, and through them we receive a poignant examination on what it means to be a young woman of Laos.
The cinematography is reflective of the modest budget, and its simplistic minimalism largely works in the film’s favor. Ana’s near blindness is a brilliant addition to the narrative, as keeping the ghosts mostly obscured by blurred vision not only hides any budgetary limitations, but works to create suspense. For the most part, though, the horror elements are kept to a minimum as Nok’s journey and her relationship with Ana remain at the forefront. This isn’t a story about ghosts, but rather the ghosts are a means to propel the story forward.
The true horror, however, remains within human nature. Under the crushing weight of societal and cultural expectations, poor decisions can have a ripple effect. Each choice comes with a consequence, and trying to break free of responsibilities and expectations can sometimes have the counter effect of becoming even more restrictive. Nok and Ana’s measured journeys constrict around them until they build toward a suffocating conclusion. While the pacing can sag a little and the horror elements are a little sparse, Dearest Sister remains an engaging inspection on gender roles in Laos.
Dearest Sister [FF Review]