The Brooklyn Horror Film Festival opened on October 14th at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg with the premiere of Dearest Sister, directed by Mattie Do. The atmosphere at the screening was relaxing, with dim lights and a barkeep catering to the eager viewers in an area next to the viewing room. Coney Island Mermaid Ale was the main beverage flowing from BK Horror Fest koozies and bags of Skinny Pop were everywhere; it was awesome. After chatting with some folks, the lights went down and there was an opening act, so to speak. A dude with a saxophone and a gal clad in all black slowly made their way down the stairs (I couldn’t stop thinking of Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice). They made a short music video/art house film and it was unexpected. I didn’t catch the names of the man and woman, or the director, but it was an interesting mix of intense music, slow motion, blood, and non-speaking dramatics; the imagery, if dissected, would speak volumes. Similarly, the opening night feature, Dearest Sister, is a straight up horror-drama with plenty of depth and substance to analyze.
Dearest Sister is the 13th full-length feature from Lao, and is produced in a country where Mattie Do is the only female and horror filmmaker. She certainly has the chops to create a quality film, as this is her second (2012’s Chanthaly was her first and was shot exclusively in her home in Vientiane). What Do is doing is crucial in the world of cinema, where she and a few others are breaking ground in a society with only one movie house and no regulatory system like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Put aside where Dearest Sister was made and all the social constructs surrounding Lao filmmaking– damn, this was a pretty good film.
The story begins with Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya), a young woman who forcefully moves from her village to Vientiane, the Lao capital, to care for her wealthy cousin, Ana (Vilouna Phetmany). Nok’s family expects her to send the money she makes back; they’re basically renting her to Ana and her husband, Jakob (Tambet Tuisk). Ana is becoming blind and people are blurry figures, although she also sees ghastly apparitions. Along with the tension between Nok and Ana, there is even more hysterics between Nok and the hired help. There is tons of social commentary in this film, and it succeeds in transmitting messages for interpretation.
The film also succeeds in building tension and letting uneasy feelings of dread and disparity linger throughout. Do doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares to frighten, but rather the human condition. Nok transitions from a naive young woman, to a ruthless and materialistic force. She is the perfect example of undeniable greed, although one can’t help but sympathize. But does that make her actions right? Also, imagine becoming blind all of a sudden and the feelings that would arise. Think about how significantly life would change, especially being in Ana’s shoes. She has a European White business man for a husband (who is rarely around) and is a female in a repressive sexist and classist country. To me, these two women’s lives are scary— and that’s before any supernatural forces come into play.
Even though Dearest Sister is a successfully made film, it is one I’d rather watch at home than in a theater. The film is intimate, needs absolute concentration and sometimes, a rewind button. Sitting in the back row at the East Coast premiere, I wasn’t prepared for an onslaught of subtitles and not having my glasses didn’t help. The folks at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival selected a fantastic film to be in a lineup full of amazing full-length features and shorts, although I would not have selected this flick for opening night. If looking for blood spatter, violent brutality and varying special effects, this is not going to fulfill that capacious void. Instead, this is an intelligent film where horror and drama work together in unison, depicting a world of trepidation, anxiety and the direness of the human condition.
4 out of 5 Zombie Heads