Studio: Raven Banner Entertainment
Director: Mattie Do
Writer: Christopher Larsen
Producer: Mattie Do, Douangmany Soliphanh, Christopher Larsen, Annick Mahnert, Sten Saluveer, Helen Lohmus
Stars: Amphaiphun Phommapunya, Vilouna Totlina’Phetmany, Tambet Tuisk, Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, Manivanh Boulom, Naliphone Siviengxay, Douangmany Soliphanh, Brandon Hashimoto
A village girl sent to become a servant discovers her wealthy relative has an extraordinary ability she can secretly exploit.
Nok lives the simple life of a lower class Laotian villager, though she dreams of designer purses and sleek smart phones. Her farming family struggles for stability while remaining immersed in superstitions and herbal remedies outmoded for the 21st century.
Nok’s relative* Ana, on the other hand, married into money when she wed wealthy Estonian business contractor Jakob. She has a maid and a gardener, but also a peculiar affliction that sees the young woman rapidly losing her eyesight.
(*Nok and Ana’s exact relationship is unclear. Materials outside the movie identify them as cousins. Within the film, Ana specifically says she doesn’t know how they’re related. Regardless, they refer to each other as “sister,” hence the title, though that’s probably a cultural term of endearment.)
That’s why Ana’s husband sends for Nok. With a disgruntled housekeeping staff prone to theft and Jakob leaving to deal with U.N. inspections, Ana requires care from a trustworthy servant. So Nok agrees to work for Ana, with the intention of sending wages back home to support her poor family.
Nok is uncomfortable with the arrangement from the outset. Ana hardly knows Nok at all, initially regarding her as basically a stranger. The other servants take to her even more unfavorably, feeling slighted that Nok gets to sleep in the house simply because she shares blood with their boss.
Nok doesn’t adjust well to her big city move, and the two “sisters” have a frosty first few days. Until Nok discovers Ana’s worsening blindness has an upside. At least for Nok.
Ana can barely make out the men and women in front of her face. Yet she can see bloody visages of whispering phantoms presumed to be ghosts. Ana is occasionally frightened into self-harming trances during which she repeats messages she doesn’t remember. Nok remembers them, however. And Nok has a hunch she can use these otherworldly words to her benefit, provided she keeps the truth about Ana’s bizarre condition a secret.
A standard summary is insufficient for articulating the ideas behind the plot and aesthetic in the style of “Dearest Sister.” That’s why so much of this review is mere recap. To be more specific about the story would be a spoiler. And to try capturing an accurate sense of the movie’s mood in text form is foolhardily futile.
I want to characterize “Dearest Sister” as a twisted take on the “City Mouse and Country Mouse” fable with an Asian frame, multicultural melodrama, and slightly supernatural twist culminating in a bloody climax. But that doesn’t make complete sense and still doesn’t paint a precise picture of exactly what it is that filmmaker Mattie Do puts on her easel.
“Different” is a word often used in discussions of the film’s eclectic blend of drama, thriller, horror, and slow burn suspense. Here is where I would caution ‘all audience’ readers that “Dearest Sister” has a taste tailored to specific tongues because it doesn’t fit easily into compartmentalized categories. Except if you’re already onboard with a description-defying foreign film featuring three spoken languages, you likely understand you’ve signed up for an unusual experience with an atypically textured motion picture.
“Dearest Sister” is essentially an arthouse-flavored film with as much to its narrative as it has in its atmosphere. It’s one part substance for every part style.
Everything from characters to tempo is built gradually, which can be an impediment to immersion for the impatient, particularly for those viewers uninterested in travelogue-type threads showcasing several strata of Laotian lifestyles. Though for vicarious tourists, the juxtaposition of spiritualism against materialism, wealth weighed with poverty, and general snapshot of unique Asian culture evens out lulls with a different kind of intrigue.
Finely finessed performances from Amphaiphun Phommapunya and Vilouna Totlina’Phetmany take each sister on an arc of uncertain moral conflict that constantly challenges the audience’s allegiance. Christopher Larsen’s cautious script plays out in unspoken emotion. And director Mattie Do ties every element together through originality in her rhythm as well as in the sights and sounds onscreen.
“Dearest Sister” may not be strictly horror, but it is haunting. It may not be typically tension-filled either, yet that doesn’t mean it isn’t thrilling. And even though it can drag unnecessarily, “Dearest Sister” is always beautifully hypnotic and artfully affecting in a wonderfully weird way.
NOTE: The film’s Lao title is “Nong Hak.”
Review Score: 75