Fantastic Fest Review: Dearest Sister

The tale of a haunted woman is much more than meets the eye

There’ve been plenty of tips on surviving horror movies. Stay awake. Don’t smoke weed. Keep clothed. Don’t be a teenager. If your new house is haunted, leave. But what do you do if you’re not sure who to fear? Mattie Do’s new film, Dearest Sister, provides no clear answer, but it is creepy as hell.

With her latest film, Do again teams up with writer Christopher Larsen and actress Amphaiphun Phommapunya to tell the story of a woman who has visions of the dead. Her first film, Chanthaly, was well received at its premiere at Fantastic Fest in 2013. Dearest Sister, which had its world premiere Sunday, is another success.

The film tells the story of Ana (Vilouna Phetmany), a well-off Lao woman going blind. Her white husband, Jakob (Tambet Tuisk), cares for her, but he’s detached and preoccupied with his business, which is under investigation for fraud. With the best intentions, Jakob sends for Nok (Phommapunya), Ana’s less-well-off cousin living in a small village. He hopes Nok can help care for Ana as her condition deteriorates. It doesn’t take Nok long to realize that as Ana loses her sight, she gains the ability to communicate with the dead – in a very unusual way. While most ghosts hide in closets or deliver lengthy backstories through various well-placed clues hidden in the floorboards, the ghosts in Dearest Sister deliver the goods: a key to financial security. As the full weight of the financial opportunity before her crystalizes, Nok’s intentions grow increasingly suspect.

Fantastic Fest can afford the opportunity to see some truly original films. This is one of those films. The narrative, the cinematography, and the performances all stand on their own merits. But I would be remiss not to mention the cultural significance of the opportunity to see a horror film coming out of Laos and directed by a woman. It has such a fresh take on the ghost story genre, and much of that has to do with its unique locale and feminist voice. The haunting weaves in classic ghost story tropes along with Lao folklore that make for an unpredictable and thus especially creepy tale. Underneath the ghost story lies an exploration of the intersection of Western and Lao culture – including conversations on the complexities of white men marrying Lao women and the effects of European business involvement in the country. It all surfaces so organically – through two strong female characters – that the film feels weightier without losing any of its eeriness. Ana’s condition provides a clever way to build additional suspense as the movie moves towards its frightening end, without needing to confine the characters to literal darkness. (The hauntings are fairly relentless, occurring during the day and night.) The ghost story makes for a fun and creepy horror movie – plenty to call the film a success. But there’s definitely more to it for anyone choosing to look closer.


Dearest Sister screens again Thursday, Sept. 29, 4:45pm.

Fantastic Fest 2016 runs Sept. 22-29 at the Alamo South Lamar. Tickets and info at www.fantasticfest.com, and follow our ongoing coverage at austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Fantastic Fest 2016, Fantastic Fest, Dearest Sister

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