Dearest Sister (2016)

First published by

Always a cottage industry, Lao film production is, like the nation itself, currently undergoing a rapid transformation. In the past, it produced only state propaganda – but in 2008, Thai director Sakchai Deenan made the country’s first independent film Good Morning Luang Prabang, and 2009 saw the launch of the Luang Prabang International Film Festival (in a city that had no actual cinemas of its own). Deenan also made the chiller Red Scarf in 2012, but the film that is regarded as the nation’s first fully homegrown horror, its first horror to have screened at international festivals, and also the first Lao film ever to have been directed by a woman, is Mattie Do’s ghost story Chanthaly (2013). Her follow-up Dearest Sister shares Chanthaly‘s lead actress Amphaiphun Phommapunya as well as its focus on ghostly concerns and female perspectives – but it is also more ambitious and sophisticated not only in its visual style but also in its thematic reach. For while this tale of two sisters may in small part recall the Pang brothers’ The Eye (2002), it comes with a strong sense of place, rooting itself in the particular contradictions of a nation undergoing the awkward transitions of development.

“Sometimes, I think I see things in the shadows,” Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) confides in her distant cousin Nok (Phommapunya). Nok has been brought from her Lao village to a well-appointed residence in the capital Vientiane to look after Ana, who is slowly going blind. Although Nok is essentially an indentured servant, earning money to support her family back home, Ana’s Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) insists, at least at first, that she live in the house like family. Where Ana sees dead people, Nok sees opportunity for advancement – but her attempts to share in the more modern, affluent lifestyle around her will lead to tension and tragedy.

If ghosts are lost souls exiled between one world and another, the same might be said of the principal living characters in Dearest Sister. For Nok is caught between the poverty of her village and the luxury of her new urban life, while her confused status as both Ana’s retainer and kin is in constant flux, leading to frictions with the maid (Manivanh Boulom) and gardener (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy). Ana finds herself stretched between the foods and herbal cures of local tradition, and the western diet and medicines that her husband imposes, eventually leading to his insistence that they both move, very much against Ana’s will, from Laos to Europe. Meanwhile Jakob, whose NGO has tried to help modernise Lao villages with engineering projects, now finds his financial shortcuts coming back to haunt him, as his little empire crumbles around him.

Always out of focus to reflect Ana’s failing eyesight, the ghosts here have their presence heralded by a light drizzle of ash in the air (like the water drops that announced the ghost’s arrival in The Devil’s Backbone). Ominous avatars of the not yet dead, these revenants with their helpful messages from beyond, although objects of terror for Ana, are not really malevolent – whereas the real evil spirit here is capital, the pursuit of which compromises and corrupts everyone. All of which ensures that Dearest Sister‘s deftly handled genre routines offer a socieconomic allegory of class and cultural clash in an emerging country whose past, though being buried by modernisation, is always returning.

Summary: In this Lao tale of two sisters, it is the ghosts of a nation’s future past who come presaging doom.

© Anton Bitel