There’s a temptation to pull the dramatic elements away from the supernatural elements of a horror movie when you’re praising it. “If you took out the ghosts/killers/monsters it would still be a great movie!” we sometimes say. I hate that. I try to catch myself when I’m on the verge of saying that, because it’s a way of demeaning the genre, as if drama doesn’t belong in a horror movie. It does, and it’s an integral part of the best horror movies. It’s just that the drama plays out alongside and tied in with terrifying and supernatural elements.
Enter Dearest Sister, the 13th ever film from the nation of Laos and only its second-ever horror movie. It’s a film whose drama and characters work exceptionally well, and you might be tempted to say “If you took out the ghosts it would still be a great movie!” but I’m not willing to do that. The movie is a great movie because of the drama and the characters AND the ghosts. It’s all part and parcel, all pieces of the greater whole.
Nok lives in a village in the Laotian countryside and is given the opportunity to come to the big city to stay with her distant cousin Ana, who needs help because she is losing her eyesight. Nok’s boyfriend thinks that she’s going to find a white guy to marry, but Nok insists she’s just going to stay a year, make a bunch of money and come home. But things in the big city aren’t as they seem - the longer Nok is there the more she is drawn to the Westernized world that encroaches on Laos (represented in many ways by Ana’s European husband, who runs a company that is funded by NGOs and is being investigated by the UN for financial impropriety). On the more eerie side it turns out that Ana’s encroaching blindness has an eerie side effect - she can see figures no one else can, ghosts that aggressively come at her and impart mysterious numbers.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Ana and Nok, and director Mattie Do (who also directed Laos’ FIRST horror movie) skillfully builds the characters before cruelly taking them apart. The culture and class clashes between Ana and Nok are fascinating, and while Do allows them to sometimes be funny (Nok is stunned when she gets a latte with a cat drawn in the foam) more often she makes these conflicts perfectly understandable on both sides. You find yourself understanding both women, even as Nok gets corrupted by Western values.
Lao pop star Viluna Phetmany plays Ana, bringing beauty and polish to the role of the woman raised in the city and married to a European. But she has more than that; Phetmany is a terrific actor and she is able to essay Ana’s crumbling security as she finds herself surrounded by possibly malevolent spirits only she can see, and she truly expresses the relief Ana finds as Nok’s presence and support helps her. But the true star is Amphaiphun Phommapanya as Nok; the transformation the actress undergoes from farm girl to bleach blonde bar hopper is profound and shown with enough detail to make it feel completely natural. Phommapanya completely changes over the course of the film, upping the cultural conflict in a way that makes you feel like a frog in boiling water - you don’t realize things have gone too far until it’s too late.
Against all of this is the spectre of the spectres and their mysterious messages. The ghosts in Dearest Sister are spooky, not scary. There are few jump scares in the film but you may go home wondering what is standing at the foot of your bed, invisibly mumbling at you. I’m reminded of Crimson Peak, and the ghosts have a floating, inky quality that reminded me of The Devil’s Backbone. Do keeps them largely unseen by us, viewed only in flashes and quick moments, but they’re incredibly effective, especially when we finally get our first good and gory look at one of them.
A slow burn that ends on a great twisted horror note, Dearest Sister is a fantastic drama and character piece that is also inextricably a phenomenal and creepy ghost story.