Dearest Sister – Thought provoking horror from director Mattie Do – words Paul Risker
Dearest Sister is Lao filmmaker Mattie Do’s sophomore feature film and following on from 2013’s Chanthaly, not only do both films belong to horror or genre cinema, but each are synchronised by sickness as a potential or seeming provocateur for a character’s supernatural visions.
While Mattie Do is Laos’ first feature filmmaker she has lived in both Los Angeles and Vientiane, Laos that has afforded her the intimate experience of both western and eastern cultures.
Dearest Sister tells the story of Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) who travels to Vientiane, Laos’ capital to look after her cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany). As with Chanthaly and the theme of sickness creating a bond between a character and the supernatural, Ana’s blindness connects her with supernatural spirits that Nok soon becomes a beneficiary of.
In conversation with Flux ahead of the film’s release on Shudder.com, Do discussed crafting a film with an alternative sinister approach, genre elements as a tool to counter censorship, and surprisingly a collaborative journey undertaken with Laos’ censors. She also reflected on how her own cultural diversity influenced Dearest Sister and the way in which cultural perspectives of the supernatural forge the film’s identity, amidst a propensity to forge a connection and disconnect with the audience.
The film is pitched as a horror, but watching it you are waiting for…
The horror part [laughs].
It’s not a genre or horror picture in the truest sense, rather there are supernatural elements intertwined with a drama whose inclination is towards social commentary.
It is a different kind of sinister [laughs].
With Dearest Sister you seem content to allow the horror side to exist beneath the surface, in itself mirroring a ghostly presence. And the eventual realisation of the importance of the horror and the supernatural thread perhaps sets it aside as a film that is re-watchable, the first viewing not necessarily permitting a true perspective.
Right, because I think you didn’t know what to expect. I hope people will watch it over and over again. But you’re right, and I really wanted to build that relationship between the audience and the characters. You feel so much sympathy, but as you go on you realise that the horror is not the ghosts at all; the horror is human nature and the society itself, which is horrifying. We have this word in our language, huachai – it means your heartstrings, your soul. Living in a developing country where wealth is new and it is starting to rot and corrupt the souls of the people, and humanity is seeping, we have started to say people are losing huachai. We have started to lose that heart for each other because this development is coming in so quickly that we are trying to, “keep up with the Joneses.” And that’s terrifying to Lao people because as you can see we are very open and kind, generous and warm. When you start to lose that to materialism, it’s terrifying.
And we are so close to the supernatural that for us having a ghost right here would be shocking because we’d seen a ghost, but it would not be unnatural to us. We have our spirit houses, we have our shrines and we have our full moon day where we believe that the veil is thin between the two worlds. Spirits are always present in our culture and in our lives, and I could tell ninety percent of Lao people that I had a ghostly visitation and no one would say: “You’re crazy.” No one! It is such a natural part of our lives and yeah, they are scared to be haunted and yeah, they are scared of ghosts. But when they see a film like this where they realise that people can be much more terrifying than apparitions, then I think this is something very important.
What we are touching upon is the eastern versus the western cultural perspective of the supernatural. Whereas ghosts in eastern culture are always present, in western culture they are more commonly perceived as a disruptive force that have to noisily announce their presence. The reception of Dearest Sister could be influenced by this difference of cultural perspective, in which the subtle horror and supernatural elements emerge from the eastern cultural influence.
I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. A lot of western ghost perspectives are summoning or calling upon the ghosts. But how could you be so presumptuous as to assume that you could command the ghost. For us in Laos they don’t even exist on the same timeline. My third film that I am working on right now talks about how the ghost might be cycling through a different timeline. Whereas we have a linear time, they are cycling through a circle, re-encountering the same character in different parts of his life. And that’s going to get interesting.
Another strange thing is that I feel a deep responsibility to show the unique aspects of our culture because no one really knows about Laos. We are very similar to Thailand, but Thailand is super-pro at making films. They make very commercial films like Shutter etc, almost like Hollywood in that regard, and they are not always even so cultural. Mae Nak is very cultural, it comes from their old legend, but when I showed the lottery ghost some of the reviewers were: “Why would she invent such a device, that’s so strange… Ghosts with lottery numbers.” I didn’t invent that. This is my culture and we believe that. This whole film happened because my mother died and relatives and distant friends would ask me all the time: “Did your mother visit you? Have you been haunted? Did she come to you in a dream? Did she give you numbers? Please tell me the numbers because I want to play them this week… Let me know.” I’d just be like: “Wow, that’s not nice… That’s not cool.” So the American side of me found that to be so inappropriate, but then the Lao side of me got it because it’s a part of their lives.
And all of the numbers in the film are extremely bad luck. I did research with Lao Media on the animals associated with these three sets of numbers, which are the unluckiest, and if you were to win with these numbers you should give the money away to a monk. So there are these intricacies in the film that only a Lao person would notice. She plays the number of a turtle which is like death for them, and with a purse full of money she just passes on by a monk who looks at her [laughs]. Things like this are little details for Lao people.
You have the unique position of having experienced western and eastern culture firsthand. How much did this influence the film?
I think that’s awesome though and it’s a rich indicator of what’s really influenced the film because things like the Lottery Ghost or spirit houses and shrines, I understand all of that… I get it. I grew up that way speaking my language and my grandma would tell me all these crazy ghost stories. But there was always another part of me as a westerner, even as a Vietnamese person where I’d step back and say: “What the crap is this? How has no one shown this to anyone yet?” Most importantly when I make a film I can show westerners what it’s really like inside of a Lao family, how they really speak to each other and how they are not mysterious orientals like everyone wants them to be. They are friendly and there is a hierarchy. They behave in a very casual way, but there is none of this simpering submissive stereotype that people think when they visit, because Lao people can initially be shy to foreigners. So I have that awesome and unique opportunity to take what I know from being a Lao person and show it to foreigners. And understanding their context is nil basically, but being able to portray it in a way that both Lao people and westerners can appreciate.
Is there a western part of your cinema that maybe Lao audiences may not fully connect with?
I think that the most western part of my cinema is the natural acting and that is shocking to a lot of people – they are like: “Oh my God everyone is so real. That’s exactly how I speak.” Myself and Lao New Wave Cinema, we were one of the first to show how Lao people speak because before when my bosses were making films, it was almost poetic and formal – a young boyfriend and girlfriend who are nineteen years old calling each other: “My darling” etc. We don’t talk like that and I showed Lao people in such a natural state that is very western. In the west I think there’s a natural way of being onscreen or a natural way of capturing reality in acting, whereas in Asia there are still these two extremes. Sometimes in a lot of Asian cinema it can be very cold and stiff, and it’s almost like performing art sometimes or being a little over dramatic. And that was the first time that Lao people had really seen this – “It’s just like real people.” But I have a little secret. They are real people because they are [laughs]. I don’t work with actors. The Estonian actor Tambet Tuisk was the first professional actor I’ve ever worked with in my life and everybody else is just a Lao person. Some people I pulled off the street and some of the market and lottery sellers were just there, and one of them was the daughter of a friend. There are no acting schools or no performing art schools in Laos, except for dance and music… Traditional dance. So I am working with completely normal people and I think there is such a fantastically natural performance from them.
Speaking with western filmmakers, there is the belief that genre cinema can offer a portrait of the evolution of social angst across the decades.
Like zombie films are mindless masses and vampire films are the avarice of society. Yeah you’re right.
In your director’s statement you write: “Early in the development of my first film, it became clear that presenting the social content of my film would result in a difficult battle with the censors that I was unlikely to win. I learned, however, that by including genre elements in my films, I was able to draw the attention of the censors away from material they would otherwise reject outright.” Laos’ relationship with genre is in its infancy or so close to its implementation that it allows us a special and unique perspective on the role of genre within narrative storytelling.
Well I don’t even think that what I am doing is that intricate or subtle because literally the department of cinema and censorship was: “Wow that is some harsh commentary.” But I love the way they are so open to speak with me because initially censorship was the big bad wolf – Oh my God, they are hoping to censor me. But my bosses and I, or Lao Media and I are probably the only or the first people to come back with our redaction papers, knock on their doors and say: “Why? What can I do?” I think they were pretty shocked by that at first and so I had a pretty open dialogue with them. But there is definitely this understanding that they are: Well you make genre films, so perhaps the statements you make are very harsh and would not be passive in documentary and would not be passive in drama. But as genre films the audience can choose how serious you are being because it has ghosts. It’s like: Oh my god we are unequal to each other in society, we have rigid social class, we have wealth and inequality – ghosts! [Laughs]. It’s alright. I really appreciate that they are going on that adventure with me, but it’s a risky adventure because I am worried that one day I might overstep the bounds, and my third film is very much towing that line.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Meanwhile filmmaker Abner Pastoll told me the change comes through the way that people perceive you. Do you comprehend a transformative aspect to the creative process?
People’s perception of me changes… People assume that I’m a certain person and people assume that I am a trained filmmaker from some famous university. People assume I’m a cinephile and talk to me about black and white films that I’ve never heard of, and they’ll talk to me about so and so from somewhere. Someone was talking to me about Kubrick once and I didn’t know. I kind of knew who he was – Oh yeah, that orange movie with the guy in the eyelashes… Yeah. I knew the guy that did all of the Italian dubbing for it because I was doing make-up at Italian film school and there was this Italian guy who was super close to Kubrick. So how I knew about Kubrick was from some Italian guy at this extremely famous film school. Their perception is that I should be this person, but I’m not, and I’m still not because sometimes I will watch really famous works with my husband and he’ll get so frustrated with me. He’s trying to give me a film education because he knows I’m coming to these amazing film festivals, and he knows there will be these conversations. He’s trying to prepare me and he’ll show me these legendary epic films, and I’m just like [imitates snoring]. “Is the popcorn finished?” [Laughs].
But myself, I have changed in a different way. I have changed in that I’ve become more stalwart and staunched about what I want and what I need. I’ve realised that if something needs to get done, sometimes I need to make that move for myself. For instance this film was nearly put on hold because we didn’t make our European funding, and we weren’t sure if we were going to get our Estonian funding. We did get our Estonian funding, but I had a timeline to be able to make this film, and my Estonian producer was: “Let’s put this on the back burner for a while.” My French producer said: “Mattie, what do you want to do?” I just had this urgency and I was like: “I am not getting any younger. I’m not going to be one of those filmmakers that pretends they are making a film and say: ‘Oh yeah, I am working on a film.’” It sounds so douche right? I was like: “No, I will make a new budget that completely eliminates all the nicer things that we expected to have and we will make this film come hell or high water.” And this is the new me where I have had to become a lot tougher about that, whereas before I became a filmmaker I’d have been: “Maybe… Oh okay, I understand. I’m sorry.” I’d have been afraid to step on people’s toes. But now I have become really tough. If you could go back to our chain of emails for that conversation it is hilarious because I sent them a budget, and you know how every Excel file has a name like Dearest Sister Budget 2016, February blah, blah, blah… Mine was OMFG Dearest Sister Budget – the Oh My Fucking God budget… How we can make the film for nickels and dimes. And we did it!
Dearest Sister directed by Mattie Do is available to watch on Shudder.com
Dearest Sister – Thought provoking horror from director Mattie Do – words Paul Risker