IF YOU SEE ONLY ONE FEMINIST LAOTIAN HORROR MOVIE THIS YEAR, MAKE IT DEAREST SISTER
It could be said that a country’s horror movies tell us something essential about its culture, its fears, and its desires. America, the great melting pot, gleefully cribbed monsters from European novels like Dracula, our own imperialist impulses (The Mummy), and later, we began to express a more individual, distinctly “American” sensibility in 1950s with the birth of creature features and atomic age fever dreams. The Vietnam War followed by Reagan’s reign gave us the slasher--helpless people stalked and brutally dismembered in the woods, usually after betraying a moral or cultural norm. Of course, looking at horror films in this light takes all the bloody fun out of it, but it’s a question worth considering, “Where would we be without our monsters?”
Director Mattie Do is in a position to answer this question about her country, Laos. Like Jose Mojica Marins of Brazil, Do found herself a fan of genre movies, but living in a country that had never had an outlet for homegrown horror films. Laos is a Marxist country, and anything with even the shadow of the supernatural is viewed with suspicion. Instead of letting this curtail her creativity, Do deftly balances ideology with anxiety. Carrying the dual role of Laos’ only female director and its only horror filmmaker, her latest creation, Dearest Sister, is a chilling, meditative ghost fable with real bite.
Set in Laos’ biggest city, Vientiane (which Do bathes in heavenly golds and yellows), a poor village girl Nok is sent to care for her distant cousin, spoiled Anna who is married to a rich, but troubled European ex-pat named Yacob. Anna needs constant attention because she suffers from a mysterious illness that is causing her to lose her sight at a young age. At first, Anna is mean, spiteful, and impatient with her countryfied cousin and plays the role of Wicked Stepsister while Nok finds a little companionship from the housemaid. There’s no escape from the pressures of her new life. The city that surrounds her is bustling, dangerous, and most importantly, expensive, place. Rich “sex-pats,” as Do calls them, prowl cafes and bars looking for “submissive” Laotian women, Nok’s family begs her weekly for money, her fiancé distrusts her because--why not? She’s a woman after all, and surrounded by so much glamour, how can she stay faithful? As Anna’s health degrades, she slowly becomes more dependent on Nok, even treating her with something like maternal possessiveness. Nok proves a compassionate companion--until an eerie pattern emerges between the deaths of several locals, the wicked bruises that appear on Anna’s body after each fit of blindness, and the monotone string of numbers she spouts while recovering from each attack.
Dearest Sister takes its time, slowly pulling you into Nok’s troubled world. Through Nok’s at-first innocent eyes, we see all levels of Laotian society vividly drawn and castigated for its materialism, venality, and status-obsession. This is particularly helpful for viewers, who, like me, only knew of Laos as the country that guy from King of the Hill always talked about, but for the people of Laos, seeing their culture laid bare, is a startling act of honesty. The rich in this film oppress and demean the poor at every opportunity--no surprise there, it’s a film from a Marxist country, but the slim middle class and the proletariat don’t escape either. Anna’s mother and father who here represent the middle-class, are willing literally to barter their daughter for home renovations. Nok’s village is shown as poor, but caring--until Nok’s fiancé breaks the silence and speaks the film’s first line, saying she’ll abandon him for a rich “white man,” before storming off, leaving her alone at the bus stop. Even though Nok is not generous with the money she earns, her family only contacts her to demand more and more money. When she stalls in sending her hard-earned wages to them, they tell her she can’t return unless she comes back with the cash. This command is what sets up the film’s final tragic scene.
Nok is a supremely compelling horror movie hero and villain. At first, her story is a simple morality tale: Sweet country girl moves to the city, is seduced by wealth, sells out, uses her blind cousin to commune with the dead... well, maybe not exactly--but the essential elements are there. Do pushes further into Nok’s mind, charting her transformation from spiritually pure to Machiavellian wicked. Nok is a good Marxist (Buddhist beliefs aside) and thinks she will be accepted by the city-dwellers because of her goodness and compassion. But she soon learns there’s a big difference between theory and practice, and like the rich around her, she becomes cold and opportunistic. While the climax is not nearly as bombastic (but no less nasty in tone), the closest horror movie analogue I can think of is Carrie, the story of another innocent young girl who allows herself to become monstrous when faced with too much injustice. The problems Nok faces are universal for any country that has a massive wage gap (I’m looking at you, America), but Do personalizes the story for the people of Laos, who live with the message that they’re all equal... the rich are just a little more equal than the rest of you.
Watch Dearest Sister on Shudder--I could brag all day about it. I didn’t even get to talk about how Do satirizes Laos’ sexual stereotypes and undermines them in a charmingly brutal fashion, or how the film’s slow burn structure mirrors a Noh play in its attention to character, mounting dread, and catharsis... as horror fans, we focus perhaps too much on death, but here’s a chance to watch a culture’s dark subconscious birthed in a uniquely Laotian, somehow completely universal tale of greed, pain, and suffering. It’s okay if you can’t find Laos on a map. Maybe you didn’t know it was a Communist country with strict censorship that has only produced thirteen films. You know now, and you can experience this elegant, cold-as-a-dying-heart, love letter to horror movies. Go ahead, let’s celebrate the democracy of horror with a little Marxist flair.