Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dearest Sister: Ghosts and Class Distinctions in Laos

Whether or not Voltaire really wrote “lotteries are a tax on stupidity,” he would probably enjoy having the sentiment attributed to him. Nok is the exception. When she plays, she wins every time, because she has inside information from beyond. However, it is unclear if those winning numbers were really meant for her in Mattie Do’s Dearest Sister (trailer here), which now streams exclusively on Shudder.

Nok has come to Vientiane to serve as an all-purpose care-giver for her distant cousin, Ana. Immediately, she understands she is stuck in a precarious position. She is not family enough to be considered equals with Ana and her Estonian expat husband Jakob, yet she is not to lower herself by consorting with their resentful maid and her husband, the surly gardener. Ana is slowly losing her vision and she often sees recently departed ghosts with what sight remains. She is also prone to psychic seizures, during which she repeats winning lottery numbers passed along to her by the spirits. When she comes to Ana never remembers anything she might have said, but Nok will.

Despite keeping the source of her windfalls secret, Nok starts to bond with Ana through her natural peasant’s affinity for the supernatural. Unfortunately, when Nok gets a taste for big city high-living, it will quickly lead to her disgrace. Of course, no matter how bad things look for her, they can always be fixed with a new set of numbers.

As the first Laotian woman to helm a feature film, the American born Do is absolutely a trailblazer. Happily, she has massive filmmaking talent to go along with her notoriety. Even though Shudder acquired Dearest, it is definitely a slow burner rather than a fright fest. Yet, it never, ever drags. Do is clearly an actor’s director, eliciting some subtle but intense performances from her ensemble, but she also controls the mood and atmosphere like an old master.

Amphaiphun Phommapunya totally burns up the screens as the quietly covetous Nok. Yet, Vilouna Phetmany might even outshine her as the entitled but increasingly terrified Ana. She also has a believably rocky rapport with Estonian Tambet Tuisk, who defies all stereotypes and expectations by giving such human dimensions to the ethically-challenged expat.

Frankly, Laos could use more filmmakers of either sex and more freedom of expression in general. It is a one-party Marxist state, albeit one apparently plagued by tremendous class inequities. Regardless, Dearest is the sort of moody and sophisticated supernatural drama that is always welcomed by genre fans around the world. Very highly recommended, Dearest Sister is now streaming on Shudder.