The first annual Brooklyn Horror Festival closed out a successful run this past weekend, with a slew of sold-out screenings and events that electrified the horror community. The festival opened on Friday, October 14 with DEAREST SISTER, a Lao horror film directed by Mattie Do. I was lucky enough to attend the festival’s premiere screening at the Wythe Hotel Cinema screening room, which was packed with eager moviegoers. Before the film, we were treated to a funny dispatch from Do, who parodied found-footage horror as she went through a horror-themed escape room in Barcelona, where she is currently shooting her next film. Do thanked the festival for screening DEAREST SISTER, which she was excited to share with the audience.
DEAREST SISTER, which was also screened at this year’s Fantastic Fest, follows an impoverished young girl, Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya), who leaves her villages behind to live with a distant cousin, Ana (Vilouna Phetmany), who is living in the capital with her ex-pat husband, Jakob (Tambet Tuisk). Ana is slowly going blind and Nok is initially brought in to be a caretaker, a position she accepts so that she can send money back to her family.
But Nok soon discovers that Ana isn’t just losing her vision – something more sinister is at play. On her first night in Ana’s home, she is awoken by her cousin’s screams. When she opens the adjoining door, she finds her cousin visibly shaken, with fresh bruise marks on her arm. Ana is being comforted by Jakob, who is less than pleased that Nok has witnessed the encounter. We come to learn that Jakob has left Europe behind for the non-profit sector in Laos, but our brief glimpses of him leave a bad taste. He is constantly leaving Ana alone for business trips that keep him away for weeks on end, his phone conversations hint at a failing business, shady side deals and, eventually, toting guns and offering substantial bribes to U.N. officials. Jakob is dangerous but is he a danger to Ana and Nok?
As it turns out, Ana’s danger comes from the dead rather than the living. On evening in the kitchen, Nok witnesses one of Ana’s encounters, as blurry images of the dead swarm into Ana’s cloudy vision, enveloping her in dark, inky smoke. Suddenly, Ana is possessed by a spirit who begins whispering a set of three numbers through her. Nok has no idea what these numbers mean and Ana has no recollection of the possession afterwards. During her next visit into town, armed with her first earnings from Jakob, Nok takes a chance and decides to buy a lottery ticket using the ghost numbers. To her surprise, she wins and then greed begins to take over.
While Nok grows close to Ana, earning the term “little sister” and accompanying her into town for fancy lunches, she now has an ulterior motive. Nok is content with allowing Ana to be possessed, swooping in to aid her after the attack and after she has heard the next sequence of numbers that will become her next winning lottery ticket. Midway through the film, Ana’s visions become premonitions. When her mother visits her as a spirit, Ana is understandably upset but later is able to contact her mother over the phone and confirm that she is indeed alive and okay. But as soon as we feel relieved, we discover Ana’s mother was unexpectedly hit by a truck on her way home that evening and has been killed. Now, there is a dangerous stake in what Ana sees. And when Ana’s attempts to correct her failing vision with surgery, Nok greed takes over with some bloody consequences.
One of the greatest strengths of DEAREST SISTER is how it focuses on builds the relationship between the two women, foreshadowing how their reliance on one another will ultimately be their undoing. While Nok’s motives on their own might be seen as simply ugly greed, it is counterbalanced by emphasizing just how young she is. Likewise, Ana’s inability to stand up to Jakob makes her even more susceptible to Nok’s manipulation, which is perhaps more sinister than the ghosts haunting her. These conflicts finally culminate in a stand-off reminiscent of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and with an ending that caused even a room full of horror fans to gasp with delight.
DEAREST SISTER was well-received at its Brooklyn Horror Festival premiere and the film was just one of many strong entries to the festival’s lineup, curated by Matt Barone. With her slice of Lao horror, Do is an exciting and welcome addition to the genre and a director whose career is worth watching.
Read more of Jamie at Daily Grindhouse!:
On SMALL TALK:
On SUN CHOKE: