As the first female director of a feature film shot entirely in Laos, Mattie Do chose to express her perspective on women’s social roles metaphorically in her 2012 debut Chanthaly, which also was the first horror film to be completed in the Communist country. Dearest Sister follows in a similar vein, tapping into the penchant for ghost stories prevalent in Southeast Asian cinema. Tracing a familiar arc, the film also relies on a degree of cultural specificity that sets it apart from other examples of regionally produced horror and identifies Do, who grew up in Southern California before relocating to Laos, as a notable emerging talent. 

In her sophomore feature, Do again examines the predicament of vulnerable women, beginning with Nok (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya), who faces a future with virtually no prospects of improvement in her impoverished rural village. Her only viable alternative is to accept an offer to move to the capital of Vientiane to care for her cousin, who is gradually losing her sight. Ana (Tot Vilouna) and her European husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) own a large home in a quiet, leafy district of Vientiane, although Jakob often travels on business, leaving Ana behind with an unreliable maid and her groundskeeper husband. Concerned for Ana’s welfare, Jakob entrusts her care to Nok, although there’s not much to do besides accompanying her cousin on doctors’ appointments and lunch dates with her chatty and equally wealthy girlfriends.

As Ana’s condition worsens, however, she begins experiencing panic attacks that bring on terrifying ghostly apparitions. In her distraught state, Ana mumbles almost incoherently, but Nok can hear her repeating series of numbers that have no apparent significance. Increasingly concerned, Jakob considers moving back to Europe with Anna to obtain better medical care, which could also help him avoid the consequences of an impending corruption investigation into his company. When Nok discovers that Ana’s number strings represent winning lottery combinations that allow her to cash in and purchase a flashy new smartphone and the fashion accessories she’s always dreamed of wearing, she’s forced to consider how Ana’s worsening illness and increasing peril from her intensifying spirit possession could affect her own newfound prosperity.

Although the women are cousins, since they’re so close in age Nok and Ana refer to each other with the colloquial “sister,” a degree of familiarity that becomes painfully ironic once Ana discovers that Nok has been winning the lottery by taking advantage of her clairvoyant ability and refuses to speak with her any longer. Nok, on the other hand, sometimes appears to be dealing with a debilitating sense of dislocation following her resettlement in the city, where she’s unable to rely on her closest relatives and familiar surroundings, intensifying her exploitive dependence on Ana.  

The script, by Do’s husband and collaborator Christopher Larsen, leans heavily on the underlying tensions occasioned by the conflict between modernity and tradition inherent in the cousins’ relationship, but opts not to adopt a definitive perspective. This ambiguity leaves the characters somewhat adrift in the shifting dynamics of their relationship, before third-act developments devolve into a far more simplistic revenge-driven narrative.

Lao pop star Phimmapunya, who also played the lead in Chanthaly, achieves an absorbing level of anxiety as the severity of Ana’s spirit possession intensifies and she begins to doubt her own faculties as well. Vilouna’s performance is less nuanced, however, alternating between stern employer and frightened, incoherent victim.

Do maintains fairly consistent control of the film’s tone, which remains closer to mild psychological horror than full-on haunting. Sparingly applied SFX conjure up Ana’s ghostly visions and the occasional jump scares that alarm Nok, but the risk of official censorship restrains the intensity of the narrative and visuals throughout.

Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival
Production companies: Oree Films, Lao Art Media, Screen Division
Cast: Amphaiphun Phimmapunya, Tot Vilouna, Tambet Tuisk
Director: Mattie Do
Screenwriter: Christopher Larsen
Producers: Mattie Do, Christopher Larsen, Helen Lohmus, Annick Mahnert, Sten Saluveer, Douangmany Soliphanh
Executive producers: Brandon Hashimoto, Todd Brown
Director of photography: Mart Ratassepp
Costume designer: Helen Lohmus
Editor: Zohar Michel
Music: Sten Sheripov

Not rated, 100 minutes