London Film Festival 2016: DEAREST SISTER

A friend once told me that Laos is the most bombed country on Earth. For a country one doesn't hear that much about in the UK, that fact astonished me. There were nearly 600,000 bombing runs between 1965 and 1973, apparently, to cut off supply lines to North Vietnam. Have a look at this:

I've read (here) that there are 80 million unexploded bomblets scattered across the land and they're killing about 100 people every year to this day. As sobering thoughts go, that's like being waterboarded with liquid nitrogen. Do wars ever 'end'?

Given a recent history like this, you might expect daily life, education, commerce, and culture to face unusual difficulties and it is true that the Lao film industry is very small. But apparently it's going from strength to strength and Dearest Sister (Laos, 2016, dir. Mattie Do) is certainly an impressive release.

Mattie Do is described as 'the first female Lao filmmaker' on the festival site and this article by Christopher Ratcliff suggests that she is personally responsible for 15% of Lao cinema at the moment (there are lots of interesting facts in this article and an informative comment too; yes, an informative 'BLT' comment!) Anyway, as a fan of spooky international films, I was attracted by the premise:

A village girl heads to the city to live as her rich cousin’s companion. On her arrival, she finds the servants giving her evil looks and the Estonian man of the house engaging in shady business deals. Worst of all, her cousin’s encroaching blindness is exhibiting disturbing supernatural side effects. As our morally ambivalent heroine becomes increasingly swayed by the material wealth around her, how far is she willing to go to sate her desires and what spirits will she unleash in the process?—BFI/LFF website

The week before, I'd seen the fabulous Tehran-set Under the Shadow and was expecting a similar experience but, while both films are deliberately and suggestively rooted in recent political and historical reality, Dearest Sister doesn't fit as neatly into the 'ghost' or 'horror' genre as its Iranian cousin.

To slosh around with broad strokes, Dearest Sister seems to be to The Eye (Japan, 2002, dirs Pang Brothers) as Under the Shadow is to Dark Water (Japan, 2002, dir. Hideo Nakata). Wishbone-thin, hungry-eyed village girl Nok embarks on a new life helping her wealthy cousin Ana, who is married to an energetically corrupt Estonian businessman (the film is partly financed by Estonian money, if I remember correctly from the opening titles). She is duty-bound to send her earnings home to her family but things take a strange turn, psychically, spiritually, and economically.

Nok doesn't do housework (there is a watchful, put-upon, envious live-in couple who handle all that) but provides companionship and a kind of pastoral care. Nok accompanies Ana to expensive lunches where she is routinely belittled by her cousin's social-climbing friends. The film is riven with class consciousness, suspicion, materialism, and an obsession with status, which brings a tincture of comedy to the spookiness. I was reminded of time I spent in Sri Lanka in a similarly constituted household and the tensions rang very true. 

The spookiness comes courtesy of Ana's deteriorating eyesight (a tempting trope for filmmakers), which strands her in a world of vague shadows, shapes, presences and, it turns out, dissociative episodes where those passing from this world to the next after accidents or trauma creep up on Ana and whisper messages to her. These creepy scenes are very reminiscent of The Eye but when we learn that the soon-to-be-dead are whispering winning lottery numbers to Ana (which Nok overhears) the film swerves back towards social comedy.

Ana wins the lottery several times, amassing a small fortune (along with suspicion and malice from her fellow 'staff') and is able to buy a new smartphone, nice clothes, to afford a risky night on the town among predatory western businessmen, and so on. The continuation of her cousin's terrifying blackouts becomes essential for her continued prosperity. Money is won, hidden and stolen; blame is apportioned and relationships deteriorate.

What I found particularly interesting about Dearest Sister was the brilliant balancing of sympathy and dislike between the main players. It is unusual for having nobody you particularly want to support or condemn. In this way it becomes a subtle meditation on how underlying currents of economics and class form and deform human relationships. Its apparent allegiance to a certain genre of ghost story makes this all the more effective.

In fact, it got me thinking about the material concerns of supernatural films: what's at stake? what mortal treasure is being contested by the troubled or lingering spirits? Hamlet and Macbeth immediately sprang to mind but it's a discussion for another time. Suffice to say, I don't think I know a ghost story so obsessed with cold hard currency and gadgetry. Another recent, if very different, film that explores the economic pressures that affect family and friendship is Ira Sachs's Little Men, which is currently on release in the UK.

The performances are superb, especially from the versatile Amphaiphun Phommapunya as Nok, and I look forward to seeing more films by Mattie Do and more Lao films in general. I liked this note from the end titles: 'No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture. The whippet was, however, quite often annoyed by the filmmakers while he was trying to sleep.'—Thanks to 

Next up: Phantasm Remastered