Dearest Sister is a terrific, delicately-paced tale of second sight and morality gone askew, helmed by a master of slow burning menace and wry observation.
Here are some absolutely astounding facts about Laos, the Southeast Asian Peninsula officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic that has a population of 7 million. And no, those aren’t the ‘astounding facts’. I clearly just pasted that first sentence over from Wikipedia.
My own astounding facts about Laos are based around the Laos film industry…
Number of films produced by Laos: 13. That’s 13 in total, In its entire history. Which means that Dearest Sister, directed by Mattie Do, is the 13th film ever to be made in her country. It’s also her second feature, which means Do is responsible for 15% of the entire film industry.
Also Mattie Do is the only female filmmaker in the Lao film industry.
And Mattie Do is the only horror filmmaker in the Lao film industry.
Which basically makes Mattie Do our new hero.
Finally, for all you newly converted Laos film industry fact fans, there’s only one cinema in the whole of Laos. Which means that if you’re potentially travelling 236,800 km to see one of only 13 films made in the only cinema in the country, it had better damn well be a good one. Also you should definitely prebook tickets before you leave.
Luckily for you, the 13th ever film produced by Laos, Dearest Sister is a terrific and chilling morality tale, full of quiet terror and black humour.
In Dearest Sister, a young village woman called Nok is sent to help her visually impaired cousin, Ana, in the city to earn some money to send back home. Nok is an impudent, materialistic woman who will spend the film straddling either side of a moral divide.
Ana’s encroaching blindness comes with some terrifying and lucrative side effects. Ana can see dead people. That’s the terrifying part, especially when they emerge from the blur of daylight surrounded by ghostly ash. The dead people have a habit of whispering a series of three numbers to Ana. That’s the lucrative part. These ghoulish apparitions are telling her next week’s winning lottery numbers.
When Ana emerges from one of her ‘episodes’, Nok hears her recanting these numbers, but later Ana will have no memory of them. Nor will Nok reveal to Ana that this is how the village girl sent to help her blind cousin is quickly, and secretively, amassing a small fortune.
At its heart, Dearest Sister is an incredibly deft morality tale, but one that comments on many wider social and economic disparities. Nok’s moral ambivalence isn’t quite as cut and dry as it sounds, she’s just young, opportunistic and hasn’t been afforded the financial security of her cousin. Although her cousin’s wealth tied up with her husband, a clearly very shady Estonian businessman.
Nok also experiences a great deal of prejudice. From the man in the mobile phone store who immediately tells Nok they “don’t sell counterfeits here,” to Ana’s friend who publicly tells Nok not to stand on the toilet as this “is a nice restaurant.” You understand and sympathise with Nok, even when she’s taking selfies with her new mobile phone, or dying her hair and heading out to find herself a nice rich Western man. The fact that actor Amphaiphun Phommapunya manages to elicit even a modicum of sympathy while screwing over her cousin is impressive.
Don’t go into Dearest Sister expecting a straight-up horror film though. Creepy moments are sparing, and certainly nothing as intense as similarly ocular based horror The Eye. Instead Dearest Sister is a delicately paced and playfully constructed film, full of quiet menace that ends with a very satisfying pay-off. 4/5
Please note, this review was originally published in October 2016, as part of our London Film Festival coverage.