Marxist countries and horror movies often do not mix. Laos has only a fledgling cinema industry and Mattie Do, returning with her second film Dearest Sister (ນ້ອງຮັກ, Nong hak), is its only female filmmaker even if she finds herself a member of an extremely small group. Set in Laos it may be, but Dearest Sister also has something of the European gothic in its instantly recognisable tale of a good country girl fetching up in the city only to be treated like a poor relation and eventually corrupted by its dubious charms. Dearest Sister is a horror movie but one which places very real fears, albeit ones imbued with superstition, at the forefront of its tragedy.
Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) is a poor girl from the country. She’s been given a good opportunity though one she perhaps would not have sought. She’ll be leaving her village and going to the big city to look after a distant relative whom she has never met. Stopping off at a temple to pray before she leaves, Nok’s boyfriend angrily skulks off, lamenting that she’ll be gone at least a year and will probably have found herself a European husband before the time is up.
When she arrives in the city Nok is met by an impatient European who turns out to be Jakob (Tambet Tuisk), the husband of her mysterious relative, Ana. Nok is to be a kind of paid companion, looking after Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) who is in poor health. Slowly losing her sight, Ana has strange episodes and frightening visions, sometimes injuring herself in a trance state that she will remember nothing of after she wakes up.
This is a land of ghosts but they’re less of the literal than the spiritual kind as Nok and Ana chase spectres of the same dream which continues to elude them both. Ana, it seems, is from a middle class background but her parents are quick enough to touch her husband for money they can use for material pleasures, barely acknowledging Ana’s ongoing health issues. Marrying Jakob perhaps means marrying out as well as up, but it hasn’t brought her the life of freedom she dreamed of even if it has made her more comfortable. Jakob’s behaviour flits between loving husband, impatient spouse, and controlling master as he, at one minute, appears to genuinely worry about his wife’s need for treatment and the next argues with a doctor about medicating her with the kind of drugs you only really hear about on TV.
When Nok arrives in the house she alters the dynamic. If Jakob wanted her to be a kind of human pet, keeping Ana company and perhaps keeping her sane in the process, his plan backfires. The two women are in someway related, though neither of them is aware precisely how (apparently they are distant cousins), but Nok has come there as an employee, not a guest. Caught between two worlds, Nok is not “family” enough to enjoy a free and friendly relationship with Jakob and Ana, but she’s not a servant either as Ana’s constant reminders that they have a maid to take care of the housework bare out. Playing the mistress, Ana is not a cruel harridan but is determined to exert her authority and so servants live outside the main house, while Nok lives “inside” – a key distinction but one which leaves her in a halfway home.
When she first arrives at Ana’s, Nok is an innocent country girl, fully intending to send the money she makes back to her family and rejects another maid’s suggestion of a night on the town because she has a boyfriend waiting for her back in the village. Skimming a small amount of money to pay for credit to use on her broken phone starts Nok off on a journey to the dark side as she gets distracted, misses the bank and buys lottery tickets with the money instead. A simple country girl, Nok does not quite know how to live the high class life (as the titters in a restaurant make her realise when she orders wine but doesn’t know why the waiter doesn’t pour a whole glass) but she wants it anyway.
Nok and Ana were not so different. Nok’s family only seem to ring her to ask where the money is and eventually the village life she’d begun to become nostalgic for seems to have forgotten her already. Tragically both women want the same thing which is to live comfortably, but also with love. Nok’s isolation drives her deeper into a cycle of avarice and resentment, whereas the imposed isolation of Ana’s illness deepens her sense of neurosis and mistrust of her new environment. Eventually greed mingles with dread as both women long to escape their fates but are resigned to the inevitability of their eventual downfall not just heralded by spirits but haunted by a culture.
Streaming in the UK exclusively on Shudder.
Original trailer (English subtitles)