Mattie Do’s Chantalay made history by being the first female-directed Laotian film, as well as the country’s first venture into horror cinema. Continuing in the path that she paved, Do brings us this year’s Dearest Sister. Amidst a sea of incredible genre films, this gem remains one of 2016’s most fascinating – not only for Do’s unique voice, but its use of Gothic tropes to look scathingly at society’s not-so-hidden darkness.
The film follows Nok, an impoverished woman, who travels to urban Laos to care for her cousin Ana as her sight fails. Ana is wealthy, with servants and a European husband, but she is plagued by illness – and increasingly frightening supernatural visions. Nok soon learns of these visions, but more importantly that Ana predicts winning lottery numbers as they occur: something Nok uses to start amassing her own fortune. Nok’s greed and Ana’s pride both lead to consequences more worldly, and more horrible, than the ghostly visions.
With a stark style and a dedication to realism, Do creates a tangible environment, full of lived-in details and ambiguity. The characters operate in contradictory ways – Nok is kind to Ana, but partially just to reach her goals; Ana’s husband cares for her, but treats her like a delicate trophy, unable to act for herself. Surrounding them are deeply-rooted class issues: Nok encounters hostility from the paid servants, who despise her because she is granted more privileges than they are; and materialism, as Nok exploits Ana’s woes for her own gain. This view of human behavior is perfectly, nastily Gothic – not in the romantic sense, but in the grotesque one. Each character harbors their own rotten, festering wickedness, in a way that feels utterly true to our world.
The three-dimensional world operates in such a way that the supernatural occurrences feel like reality. They are a part of this world; though no less frightening because of it. Do orchestrates Ana’s visions with strong cinematic finesse; the unsettling sound design, the transitions between Ana’s viewpoint and Nok’s reality, and the ghostly makeup all combine for top-notch horror filmmaking. Ana’s loss of vision also provides some brilliantly suspenseful climactic moments, which I won’t reveal here. Yet, like the greatest Gothic stories, the supernatural is not the most disturbing aspect of the film. While ghosts play a constant role in the plot, the real nightmare is humanity.
Do’s film is patient, which may be hard to overcome for certain viewers, and at times diverts from the narrative thrust; but the culminating effect is harrowing and bleak. This is a film rooted in modern society’s fears, and a biting portrayal of class differences, all using traditional Gothic structure. For those fascinated by human horrors, drawn so well by authors like Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, this film is an impeccable gift. Do clearly knows the genre and its history, while also pointing a sharp sociological eye at reality. She has made a film that uses supernatural horror to more evocatively dissect human flaws and evils, and she does this to full emotional effect.
Dearest Sister is multi-dimensional, moodily frightening, and in the end heart-wrenchingly honest about human behavior. It also confirms Do as a vibrant, exciting cinematic voice; I will be watching anxiously for what horrors she conjures next.
The film screened at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.