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Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – Laos: Dearest Sister (Nong hak)

10/28/2017 – Laos: Dearest Sister (Nong hak) (2016)
Directed by Mattie Do

While Laos gained independence in 1949, few films, and nothing all that prominent were made in the ensuing decades. What little industry there was, was crushed in 1975 by the incoming Communist regime which basically obliterated it save for a few state-financed propaganda films. It wasn’t until 2008, that another non-governmental film was released, Good Morning, Luang Prabang. This is where I’d love to say that the country has seen a boom in film production since, but that would be a lie as best I can tell, there’s been only 13 films produced thus far. That’s not to say there’s been nothing as The Rocket has seen critical acclaim but despite being shot in Laos in the Lao language, it was an Australian film. Similarly, the 2015 film River is a Canadian film set there but filmed in various languages.

Mattie Do has basically been a one-woman film industry for Laos (at least as far as the West is concerned) and is both the first female director and first horror director representing the country. Her first film Chanthaly (see below for a review of that) was released in 2012, but she has received the most notice for her latest film, Dearest Sister. Dearest Sister is actually the first film ever submitted by Laos for Best Foreign Language Film (we’ll find out in the next couple month if it is selected but considering it’s horror, don’t bloody count on it). Do was born in the US, but returned to the country of her parents in 2010. She made her first film for a whopping $5000 before turning to Indiegogo (successfully raising $40,141) for this film.

A Laotian woman journeys from a small village to the capital help take care of her more well-off cousin (presently losing her vision) who she has never met and has little interest in her being there. Her cousin is married to an immigrant who is established very early on as a serious business person by the way he yells business-y things into the phone. The cousin is having visions of an apparently disintegrating human (with it coming into shaper and sharper focus as the movie continues) that seem to harm her and to the outside world look like self-harm. Her marriage is failing as she is determined to stay in Laos while he wants to move abroad for work and to get her proper treatments and it’s nice to see a film depict “natural” medicine as a load of crank as it winds up just giving her an infection.

The lead struggles to find a purpose in the house and is treated as an outsider by both the staff and her cousin but she starts to grow closer with her cousin who seems to long for a more Laotian life, eventually calling her “Dearest sister”. She also starts to achieve success when the cousin starts saying random numbers which she can’t remember that turn out to be winning lottery numbers. Of course, instead of sending her winnings home, she spends the money on herself, SPOILERS getting thrown out of the house when this is inevitably found out (she is not the sharpest tool in the shed). END OF SPOILERS

The biggest issue with Dearest Sister is that it focuses on the wrong character. It’s like the horror movie is happening next to a character piece about some asshole who digs themselves in deeper with every action and consistently blames others for her own stupidity and inexperience. I’m torn between really liking what Amphaiphun Phimmapunya does in the lead performance as she constantly appears to be shrinking on camera, but she just doesn’t seem to have much in the way of screen presence when the role calls for it.

The light supernatural touches give way to a different sort of horror as she is left alone with her cousin SPOILERS and starts tormenting her to get more numbers. What could be just chalked up to stupidity and the lure of city life turns malicious. The cousin is locked in, the furniture is moved about, she is denied medication and cleaned bandages, she’s blinded from an operation to fix her eyes, and has lost the visitors. For a second it looks like this is what the film has been building up to, a sort of third in an informal trilogy of women trapped in their homes they are attached to deprived of working legs, hearing, and now sight as they are tormented.

But that superb tensions is undone when it looks like she is about to be saved with her husband returning home and receiving the near-Scatman Crothers treatment as he is seriously wounded by the returning servants who have come to loot her place for having been fired earlier (deservedly so). The film had been building up to this admittedly so it makes sense from a plot perspective, it’s just that the film kind of stalls out in the final moments and leaves a bunch of threads untied. At least it tells us who the figures are, the bleeding bodies of the lead, her cousin, and her cousin’s husband but I have no clue what the deal is with the lottery numbers and there’s no payoff any of the Laotian vs. Western stuff. END OF SPOILERS

The film looks real good and the pretty music free atmosphere does an excellent job with aiding the tension. It’s slow paced and at times it feels like that is in aid of driving up the suspense (especially at the conclusion), but at other times it is just tedious and in need of a bit of tightening up (especially in regard to scenes where the lead is just alone and wandering about). It’s a solid film with a much better film hiding just beneath the surface. It’s what I believe is called a “promising effort” from someone who could do great things with a bit more money and experience.

Bonus Episode #15 – Stephen King: 1922 (2017)
Directed by Zak Hilditch

I’ve already talked about the two of 2017’s theatrical Stephen King films in It and Gerald’s Game and I was left feeling respectively mixed and disappointed. Since I doubt The Dark Tower or the sequel to a DTV adaptation of Children of the Corn would impress (and I ain’t got time for Mr. Mercedes), it’s down to 1922 to make this year of King to pan out for me.

The film functions as one man’s confession, narrated in retrospect of his experience in the titular year. His wife wants to sell their land (or at least her portion of it) and move to the city to open a dress shop, threatening to take the kid with her if he does not comply. Out of a combination of stubbornness to see out the hard times and a distaste for city life, he refuses to leave and is convinced this is the place that he and his son (and so on) will live out the rest of their lives. SPOILERS So, he gets her drunk and when she is passed out, he plots to kill her with the son who goes along with it for… reasons. The son smothers her while the father stabs and finishes her off. END OF SPOILERS

The movie is so dark at times it is hard to see what is going on and even after being forced to turn out all my lights, it barely helped matters. Thomas Jane is nigh-unrecognizable, and his face just looks so gaunt that he looks more like a taller Tim Blake Nelson with a voice close enough to something out of Forrest Gump that it made for some fun, unintentional comedic moments. In addition, all the rats plus a dude who’s the spittin’ image of Crispin Glover who shows up for like one scene also amused me with all the mental Willard comparisons. Neal McDonough is great as always though and is probably the highlight of the film.

SPOILERS The two throw her in an abandoned well, dropping a cow into the well on top of her, and then bury the body. The way the cow just collapses down the well is hilarious in a way that I do not think was intentional. Their efforts to cover it up seem to be going well until the boy knocks up a fellow neighbor teenage girl and Jane is forced to come up with money to help her stay in Catholic facility while she has the baby. His son runs away and is forced into a Bonnie and Clyde-like life of crime with her until he died. Back at home Is haunted by a rat he saw crawling out of his wife’s eye and by her figure. He loses his hand but gets away with the murder when another body was found and attributed to her. He gets his in the end as he forced to sell the farm and head into the city where he basically relives the plot of Brooks from Shawshank except this time the film goes for the cheaper shot of the ghosts coming to kill him. END OF SPOILERS

The film is beautifully shot but it’s just far too goofy for me to take too seriously. It’s also awkwardly paced with that whole second paragraph, containing plenty of material to actually develop things, over quickly and the rest of the film feeling stretched out as a result. The kid’s plotline was especially poorly done Dylan Schmid is completely in out of his depth in trying to make his character seem even somewhat interesting. It is also a shot past a good ending and wound up feeling unsatisfying.

Chanthaly 2.JPG
Bonus Episode #16 – Laos: Chanthaly (2012)
Directed by Mattie Do

The titular daughter (also played by Phimmapunya) returns home with her father where he finds her mother having attempted suicide, the daughter at first successfully has this hidden from her, but eventually curiosity gets the better of her and she runs around to see it. Fast forward to 15 years later and the girl is now seemingly directionless in the world with an overprotective father who tries to hide any memory of her mother from her and keep her from leaving the property. When she is left at home alone with her dog, she starts sensing eerie things including a woman in a white shawl of some sort which she believes to be her mom, the mere mention of whom upsets her father.

She suffers from a heart condition and is given medication for it by a doctor friend of her father which succeeds in making her hallucinations disappear. She also starts tentative flirtations with a neighbor boy and even gets out of the house with the help of the doctor. Upset over the lack of seeing her mother though she flushes her medication which works until she is caught and forced to start taking them again. SPOILERS Mad at her father, she ODs on them and becomes a ghost like her mother. END OF SPOILERS

It’s at this point that the film completely stalls. What was a slow, occasionally interesting film limps to the finish in his final third. SPOILERS When she meets her mother, or the women claiming to be, she denies that it is her mother and calls her by a different name which you would think would lead to some psychological drama but nope, it is just the site of lifeless conversations in a washed-out world. Chanthaly tries to contact someone, maybe mother tells her she can’t (the more successful she is, the more harm she does to someone), makes vague references to her being a child, rinse and repeat. Finally she leaves the property which manages to allow her father a moment of peace. END OF SPOILERS

The film looks very good especially considering how cheaply it was made, it’s just that it is so fucking dull. I really wanted to like a country’s debut in horror but it’s just not how things worked out (or usually how things work out for that matter). Do has a distinctive style and knows how to stretch a buck, but she just hasn’t been able to put all the pieces together just yet. I just hope the first step she makes on her next film is to get her writer Christopher Larsen to actually write a film that feels like a cohesive whole instead of a couple of films awkwardly stuck together, one of which is usually far superior to the other.

Bonus Episode #17 – Natural: Ben (1972)
Directed by Phil Karlson

Once again, I know I was beaten to this review already but oh well. Released the following year, Ben is a sequel to last night’s Willard and picks off right where the last film leaves off, depicting the SPOILERS death of Willard as he attempts to kill off all the rats including Ben. END OF SPOILERS But we all know what you what you all think of first when you think of this film.

With that improbably Oscar nominated song sung by the future King of Pop about a rat out of the way, onto the film. The film picks up with the police investigating the incident, but Ben has gotten all the rats to hide away. The horror starts up much quicker as a patrolman is ambushed by rats and this time the effect is more hilarious this time out (this is a theme for the film and every single death or rat encounter is like that).

The cast is much lesser well known this time out with perhaps the most notable name being Family Ties’s Meredith Baxter and it shows. If there was too much ACTING in the last film, this film makes that one look low key. There’s much more wacky fun as they cause a truck to explosively crash, raid a grocery store, invade a fitness center (for maximum women screaming) all from there giant colony in the sewers.

A kid who has recently lost his father and is obsessed with marionettes befriends Ben. The boy composes multiple songs to Ben (whose name he is told by his sister) and I don’t normally condone bullying but this kid is just asking for it. Well that is before he reveals the kickass surgery scar from a heart transplant (or at least surgery) and depressingly may need another one, a scene that feel so out of place from the rest of the film. He teaches Ben to avoid traps as they can seemingly talk back and forth and in return Ben protects him from a bully with the help of his posse. Despite knowing from the start they are a bunch of murderers, he still protects them and seems to mentally shut that fact out. He also plays a harmonica while being questioned by the police (I swear the one cop wanted to beat the shit out of him and I found myself on the side of the cops) which is either super ballsy or just another sign that that boy ain’t right.

SPOILERS The climactic battle occurs in the sewers as they torch the rats as the rats attack when they can and make things far closer than they should be against flamethrowers. The fact that the flames are very visibly not hitting any of them can’t be helping their cause (yes, I know this is just a special effects failure) but in the end they all triumph. Well triumph aside from Ben who escapes badly wounded and reunites with his dumbass, crying friend in time for the inevitable sequel (Ben never received a sequel). END OF SPOILERS

It’s not like they were following up a classic and having a basement swarming with rats at the end certainly tied their hands quite a bit, but they could have done better than this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the basic plot of the film, it’s just the writing, the acting, the direction, and everything else that let the film down. It’s a silly, generic 70s natural horror film with occasional pretentions to more compared to the fairly serious melodrama of the first film. There’s nothing wrong with being a silly, generic 70s natural horror film (I quite enjoy watching them), it just succeeds at being nothing more than a moderately fun thing to mock and laugh along to.

Next up: One country with a 2016 release down, a few more to go. The next one though is Baskin from Turkey.

2017 Full Schedule