The Brooklyn Horror Film Fest is a brand new event that took place October 14-16 in a number of unique locations around Brooklyn and featured a dynamic selection of both new and classic horror. The opening night film, Dearest Sister, is paradigmatic of this quirky fest. Coming from Laos, Dearest Sister borrows from more familiar Asian horror cinema, but creates something both unexpected in theme but also specific to the culture which birthed it. The opening night event itself really set the tone for this brand new fest. The opening night reception was held at The Wythe Hotel, in their subterranean bar and screening room. Going down to the Wythe Cinema feels like being let into some sort of prohibition era speakeasy. The room is all exposed brick and swagger, and while the screen in the actual screening room is not as large as I would want it to be, it still looked great. The room, for a modest room in the basement of a hotel, had impressive stadium seating with plenty of front leg room for folks to walk by. For those who associate movies only with the most state of the art cinema spaces, this room, as well as many used by the fest would be disappointing. In the same way, those looking for the most obvious, middle of the road, modern horror would be just as disappointed. The BHFF brand is pretty established as quirky, unexpected, and yet impressively excellent. From programming to spaces, nothing was quite what I expected, but nevertheless was still rather pleasant. Dearest Sister, with the way it walks the line between supernatural thriller and intense family drama, represented that for me in an incredibly salient way.
It is easy to focus entirely on Dearest Sister director Mattie Do, not just because of the strength of her vision and technique, but because she is so unique. Do is not only the first female Laotian director of a feature length film. Her first film, Chanthalay, was the first horror film ever made in Laos. Dearest Sister weaves a tale of class, gender, colonialism, and lottery ghosts. I wish I was more familiar with Laotian mythology, so I could articulate the cultural relevancy of ghosts who tell the blind what lottery numbers to bet on. Is this an original idea of Do, or a local spooky tale from Laos itself? I couldn’t find anything via Google, but I will say that they are quite effective. The film revolves around the strained and then close relationship between Nok and her cousin Ana. Ana is a rich metropolitan woman, with a European husband, who is beginning to lose her sight. Nok is sent by her relatives to not only help Ana, but also primarily to make money for them back in the village. Nok is a fish out of water, and immediately sympathetic as she struggles to understand not just the city, with its westernized temptations and struggles, but also the complications of Ana’s household. Soon she learns that Ana, in her blindness, is being visited by ghosts who impart to her strange numbers which are, in fact, winning lottery numbers. Nok does not share this information, and what follows is a tense and dark dramatic arc which highlights the whirling politics and class issues surrounding the family.
Dearest Sister is not just a supernatural film, nor is it a family drama free of the deeply disturbing elements we associate with a traditional horror film. The film’s budget was small, and the CGI of the ghosts was not always great. However, they were creepy and managed to function surprisingly well as an integral part of the narrative without which the story would not work. Yet they are not the main point, which seems to be the ways in which the larger social issues surrounding this strange family and friend unit in Vientiane play themselves out in very personal and eventually violent ways. To suggest Dearest Sister is only a familial drama, or even a story about class and culture, without also suggesting it is also a horror film would miss the dark and violent ways in which the story plays out — not in extreme ways, but the film is definitely not for those inclined to enjoy a film with darker story elements. Still, what stood out to me was not the turn towards anger and murder, but rather the ways in which the film highlighted some intensely complicated issues without descending into a “message film.” Rather, Dearest Sister found dramatic use for a variety of overlapping identities and oppressions, working in various ways in the context it found itself.
I must, of course, set this awesome film in the context of an opening night of a new film fest trying to find its voice and reputation. This opening night was surprising in the best possible ways. The staff was welcoming and friendly, all badge holders got a pretty significant swag bag of free stuff, and the evening began with live music which was interesting at the very least. I was not able to attend the party after the screening, but from just this event I knew the rest of the fest was going to be fun.
If you get a chance, see Dearest Sister. It is not your expected horror fare, but with great performances and a compelling narrative, it is a great feature from an interesting new voice in international cinema.