2016 Mattie Do Laos 101 mins.
Dearest Sister (Nong Hak) is the second feature film directed by Mattie Do, and it has some similarities to her first film, Chanthaly (2013)—not least its pervasive sense that hauntings happen most often in our closest relationships. Do, who was born in Los Angeles to parents who immigrated from Laos, is making a name for herself as the first female director of a Lao feature film and the first director of a horror film (Chanthaly) written and directed entirely in Laos. Dearest Sister was also produced in Laos, filmed on location in the capital city of Vientiane, where Do was living. As important, though, as Do’s films unquestionably are for Lao film-making, Dearest Sister is an exceptional horror film by the standards of any national cinema.
More so than Chanthaly, Dearest Sister pulls back and out from the confines of a single family and shows how families are embedded in larger global networks and class relationships. The protagonist Nok (played by the very talented Amphaiphun Phommapunya, who also starred in Chanthaly) is sent from a remote rural village in southern Laos to go and stay with her cousin in the thriving capital. Her own family has hired her out, and she is supposed to send the money she earns back to them. Nok’s cousin, Ana (Vilouna Phetmany), is married to a wealthy white European, Jakob (Tambet Tuisk), who has made his money through some very illegal dealings involving the UN and an NGO. His absence for much of the film is explained by his having to extricate himself from a situation that may land him in prison. That class is at the center of this film is made clear when Jakob and Ana disagree over where Nok should sleep: is she family (and thus should sleep inside) or a servant (and thus should be consigned to outside quarters)? She’s allowed to sleep inside, but only grudgingly—and she is never fully admitted into the family, living under the threat of being banished. And she knows it.
Nok is the center of this film. She is innocent, it seems, when she arrives at her cousin’s luxurious house, and the more she sees of Ana’s life—the wealth, the possessions—the more she comes to want it. The fact that seeing is so important to Nok (she wants what she sees) is highlighted by the fact that her cousin is slowly going blind, stricken with a mysterious illness her doctors in Laos cannot diagnose. But just as Nok sees things and wants them, wants to make them real in her life, so Ana also sees things, even as she’s going blind, although they are not things she wants.
Indeed, both cousins see things that are of the future—things not yet real but which may be, could be. Nok realizes, moreover, that what Ana sees—and what she says, when she’s in the trances brought on by her visions—can help her get what she sees: the dresses, the smart phones, the make-up, the hairstyle, the shoes.
The thematic parallels that draw Nok and Ana together are not just about sight (and its relation to desire or dread) but also about their liminal status. Nok no longer has a clear place in the class structure: her relationship to Ana draws her away from her impoverished family and village, from the servants in Ana’s house, from the poor girls in the city who willingly use their looks and their bodies to get a “white husband” and get themselves out of poverty. Nok is not them, not anymore, but she’s also not wealthy and married—safe—like Ana. (Watching Do’s film as someone steeped in the western supernatural tradition, I couldn’t help but think of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Jack Clayton’s 1961 film, The Innocents, both of which similarly exploit the liminal status of a young, vulnerable woman inbetween clear class positions.) Ana herself, of course, also inhabits a liminal realm—between sight and blindness, between life and death. And Nok’s dangerous liminality, her new and powerful desires, lead her to ruthlessly exploit Ana’s decidedly unwilled liminality.
The film’s rising tension is driven by Nok’s increasing ruthlessness, as she casts aside all scruples to get what she wants. She’s not very subtle about it, or adept at it, which makes her hard to dislike entirely, until the end. Nok accrues more volition as she goes along: while her actions at first seem more like impulses than well thought-out plans, she becomes more scheming, more callous. And as Nok gets more merciless, Ana gets more helpless. Her husband’s effort to buy her back to health by taking her to a doctor in Thailand doesn’t really seem to help: the forces unleashed by what she sees and by what Nok sees are too strong.
The film ends in both an expected and a completely unexpected way. It pursues the continually escalating tension between Nok and Anna—and the final moment is not the less powerful in remaining completely true to the relationships that had developed through the film. In a film that is always about what is seen and unseen, the ending strikingly shows the viewer both too much and not enough. From beginning to end, Dearest Sister is a film that I’m sure will put Mattie Do on the map.