Laos country village girl Nok travels to the capital of Vientiane to take a job caring for her rich cousin Ana who is gradually going blind. She soon figures out that in the blurred spaces of Ana’s failing vision, her cousin is able to perceive the spirits of the recently departed, and that they are allowing her to predict winning lottery numbers.
Like Mattie Do’s debut movie Chanthaly, Dearest Sister is at its core a straightforward ghost story, but also like its predecessor it uses its themes as a medium to explore issues reaching far beyond. While Chanthaly dealt with the importance of familial ties and Laos’ patriarchal culture, Dearest Sister takes things further, offering a critique of the county’s society, its gender inequality, and the wide disparity existing between the rich and poor. That the points are made with subtle yet articulate clarity, despite the country being one with which many people will be unfamiliar, is a testament to the quality of Do’s storytelling.
Nok begins as a likeable but put-upon character, there to fulfil a worthwhile role but forced to exist in a social limbo, properly fitting in neither as a family member nor as one of the live-in servants. However, your sympathy for her begins to wane as she succumbs to her own selfish avarice, withholding the money she is supposed to be sending home and instead using it to finance her new materialistic lifestyle while her lottery winnings are hoarded like a treasured possession, all the while genuinely believing herself to not be doing anything wrong. Even after she becomes acclimatised to city life, Vientiane’s denizens still perceive her as nothing more than a poor and ignorant country peasant, and are accordingly dismissive towards her as a result.
It’s made clear there are many girls who believe that ensnaring a rich white foreigner is their only means of advancement, and that once they have one, allowing themselves to become pregnant can be used as a means of controlling him. Ana herself is married to an Estonian businessman whose dealings are revealed to be more than a little shady, and who appears to have little interest in her country or its culture, and it’s pointed out that her place in society is not a result of anything she has achieved, despite having done what was expected of her. In addition to this, one scene also touches on the plague of sleazy sex tourists who hang around bars in the hope of encountering pliant young women.
As well as the biting social commentary, Dearest Sister also excels as a deftly constructed horror movie. The ghosts Ana sees begin merely as indistinct shapes, but soon progress to far more chilling visitations. They appear shrouded in a thin ethereal mist and shedding fluttering clouds of corpse ash, their flesh torn and gouged from whatever lethal accident befell them while blood still glistens wet on their revenant skin. And if you ever thought that fear from otherworldly apparitions would be banished by bright sunlight, think again.
The film industry of Laos is still in its infancy, but if Dearest Sister – only the 13th movie the country has ever produced – should be taken as a benchmark of expected quality, then it shouldn’t be long before the southeast Asian nation makes a mark on the international stage.
DEAREST SISTER / CERT: TBA / DIRECTOR: MATTIE DO / SCREENPLAY: CHRISTOPHER LARSEN / STARRING: AMPHAIPHUN PHOMMAPUNYA, VILOUNA PHETMANY, TAMBET TUISK, MANIVANH BOULOM, YANNAWOUTTHI CHANTHALUNGSY / RELEASE DATE: TBA