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Dearest Sister: Nong Hak
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by Jay Seaver

"Hiring the poor relations is always a problem."
4 stars

SCREENED AT MONSTER FEST 2016: There’s no universal answer to how much attention should be paid to the living compared to the dead when crafting a ghost story, especially when you consider that a good one will do a great job in misdirecting the audience. "Dearest Sister", for instance, puts the supernatural so near its center that it can easily look more important than it is, drawing conscious attention away from the more conventional material that it metaphorically extends. That’s kind of its job, and it does so successfully enough that it not making a lot of sense as a plot device can be quite forgivable.

Taking place in Laos, it inverts some of the traditional ways Westerners go about ghost stories. Nok (Amphiaiphun Phommapunya), for instance, heads into the city for her job working as a personal companion rather than to an isolated mansion. She’ll be helping her cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) out where she can, as Ana is losing her sight and her Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) is frequently away on business. Nok is viewed with suspicion in both her new and old homes, with her immediate family thinking she’ll spend her time looking for a white fiance while Ana treats her country cousin as something between family and a servant, which makes the married couple who serve as maid (Manivanh Boulom) and gardener (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) even more hostile. It’s not exactly unwarranted, either; when Ana goes into trances and seems to see things from outside the normal world, Nok doesn’t shrink from exploiting those visions.

Nok arrives at Ana’s house quickly, too quickly to come across as a fish out of water, and that seems purposeful: The impression that forms with the audience is somebody between statuses; though she is actually in a pretty good position, she sees herself as potentially downgraded to a servant, and therefore needing to grab hold of the next level up to the extent that she can. Director Mattie Do and writer Christopher Larsen set the situation up in a way that seems so natural that it’s easy to sympathize with Nok even when she’s acting selfishly at first, with Amphaiphun Phommapunya always making sure that the audience sees how much of her can be explained as being young and in a new environment; her initial steps down a bad path come across as her being in over her head, keeping the audience with her enough to be invested in which way she’ll eventually lean.

The filmmakers place her in the middle of a situation that is intriguingly fraught to start with - the servants have, as is traditional, been doing their own pilfering, Jakob’s business is on shaky ground, there’s a boy and neighbors. It’s a fully realized world that she’s dropped into, detailed and full of dueling interests enough to pique outsiders’ interest while seeming to have the ring of truth (Do opts not to present her country as a particularly exotic place as a means to appeal to foreign markets). It’s something that makes Ana interesting to watch beyond the visions she has: Vilouna Phetmany is not called upon to make her haughty or imperious, although there is certainly an element of expecting gratitude for allowing Nok this opportunity in how she plays off Phommapunya. With Ana spending most of her time unaware of her missing time, Phetmany is called upon to portray her as smart enough to be aware of just how precarious her entire lifestyle could be but cognizant enough of her limitations that she can do little more than push through. Nok, mostly, is less a potential rival than a reminder of from where she came and could wind up again, even if she is still a danger.

You almost don’t need ghosts and the like, but they prove to be a nice addition; as much as what the spirits actually do to make their presence profitable for Nok is kind of silly, it fits in well with how most petty crooks justify their actions by how they’re taking something that the other person will never miss. Nok is not the only one here trying to get money for nothing, but her actually being able to do so, initially, eases her and the audience into the moral grey area for a while, making things that much more complicated when she’s got to start making tough decisions. It also gives Do the opportunity to stage some moody, spooky scenes, relying much more on the vaguely creepy than the gross-out. She and her crew make nice use of their setting, too, creating a sharp difference between the places where the foreign and wealthy live and dine and the functional spaces where the likes of Nok go without the movie feeling like it’s been designed out of reality or made Laos look bad. They also make Ana’s home a place that is comfortable by day but can turn quite foreboding once it gets dark.

I’m not sure the hauntings necessarily work beyond being what the movie needs to push everything else along (even in terms of being haunted by the future, there’s something awfully convenient about them). It’s okay, though; they give everything else a good push, getting the movie to interesting places before the more nasty horror climax, and that’s usually the material for a fright film worth seeing.

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originally posted: 01/25/17 14:01:12
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