By Scott Dorward
Dearest Sister (Laos, 2016)
“In my village, we believe that when you lose one sense you sometimes gain another.”
I’m always excited to watch horror films from countries I know little about. Unfamiliar locations and cultural differences can make even the most overused ideas seem renewed. So when I noticed a horror film from Laos on Shudder, I knew I had to give it a try. Unfortunately, the freshness of its setting is not quite enough to save Dearest Sister from being average.
Nok is a young woman from a small village in Laos. She is hired as a companion by her cousin Ana, who lives in Vientiane, the capital city. Ana has a degenerative illness that is steadily robbing her of her sight. Jakob, Ana’s Estonian husband, is caught up in trying to save his rather suspect business from the scrutiny of the authorities, so it falls to Nok to help Ana with the everyday challenges of going blind.
Ana’s condition is more than a medical one, however. As the world around her fades, she starts to see gruesome apparitions. Ana tries her hardest to avoid these spirits, with mixed success.
Whenever one of the spirits breaks through Ana’s defences, she finds herself repeating strings of numbers. Nok decides to try a set of these numbers on the lottery and is rewarded with a significant payout. From this point on, Nok, who has promised to send money home to her family, starts to push Ana into more ghostly encounters. This escalates as Nok is tempted by the material excitements of city life, leading her into financial turmoil.
Alongside all this, the domestic staff resent the privileges afforded to Nok, driving them to cruelty. Jakob’s business dealings threaten to drag everyone into legal trouble and maybe worse. And as Nok becomes more and more opportunistic, the stage is set for tragedy.
Dearest Sister is the second feature film from Mattie Do, a Laotian-American director who stands out as being both the only female filmmaker in Laos and the only person making horror films there. Her husband, Christian Larsen, is the screenwriter on all her projects.
From some cursory reading, it seems that Do and Larsen draw heavily upon the folklore, culture and religious beliefs of Laos in their work. The spirits in Dearest Sister are no exception. Their need to reveal winning lottery numbers apparently comes from local folklore. As an outsider, I found this jarringly odd — so much so that it came close to spoiling the film for me. I just simply could not suspend my disbelief that spirits would manifest to pass on such a mundane and impersonal message.
Learning a little about the folklore behind this film did warm me towards it, however. It also raises an interesting point about how much a film should assume people know of its cultural references when released in an international market. While unfamiliarity with the connection between spirits and lottery numbers in Laos won’t stop anyone from understanding Dearest Sister, it may make it harder for them to connect with the film. There’s an interesting parallel to my first pick of the month, Baskin, which is also enriched by a knowledge of local folklore and religious beliefs.
Dearest Sister is a well-crafted film, if a little slow and ponderous. I was largely engaged throughout and appreciated the escalation in its final act and the uncompromising resolution. The earlier parts of the film did drag at times, however, and I found myself growing impatient more than once.
While the elements of Laos folklore and culture elevate the supernatural aspects of the film, they still feel a little generic. The basic premise echoes the 2002 Hong Kong film, The Eye, and the appearance of the spirits could come from any one of a hundred similar films. Their bloody appearance offers some mild creeps but they are nothing special in the end.
Most of Dearest Sister‘s strengths lie in its mundane aspects, with the ghostly intrusions largely plot devices to drive conflict amongst the living. For all its ghosts, cruelty and violence, Dearest Sister barely feels like a horror film. This is more of a drama with spooky trappings.
At the very least, Dearest Sister has interested me in watching more of Mattie Do’s work. Given the talent on show here, I can imagine that she is capable of producing something quite remarkable. Sadly, Dearest Sister falls just short of being that film.
A Final Note
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!