‘Dearest Sister’ is Terrifying Like Existence is Terrifying

Mattie Do’s Laotian Horror-Drama, Dearest Sisteris a film with no protagonist, and only marginally an antagonist. In that sense, it’s perhaps the most realistic movie you didn’t see this year. Instead, there’s a rotating cast of victims, each of whom, intentionally or not, proceed to make new victims as they are victimized.

There are also some spooky scary ghosts. They are integral to the plot, but peripheral to the terror of it all. What’s frightening in this film is the tenuousness of everything – how everything hangs by a thread, and nothing is sure, and nobody is reliably trustworthy. At the bottom of things, one fears, there is only caprice, betrayal, greed, self interest. In this film, violence is a cycle that usually isn’t broken.

All of which is to say, Dearest Sister is terrifying like normalcy is terrifying: You’re born somewhere, for some reason, and shaped largely by forces you scarcely control. Then you are thrust into a world of people like yourself, who pose a threat to your well-being, not because they are different from you, but because they are the same. And you invariably venture to assume, because you are captive to your own ‘narrative distortion’ of the events in which you are a player, that you are the protagonist.

In this sense, every tale is a horror story if you dig deeply enough into it and wait around for it to play out. Whether or not Jason Voorhees actually shows up, every camping trip is pregnant with the ruinous specter of existential dread if you’re paying close enough attention. Much of what staying power capitalism does have can be attributed to the holy terror that comes over us at the prospect of being alone with our thoughts. There’s a quiet terror undergirding the human experience, because there should be. Dread’s the right response to the vanity of vanities. This is the sense in which Dearest Sister is frightening.

I’ve revealed almost no plot details – One, because the movie is hardly a year old and, Two, because the film is very much worth seeing. (It was recently picked up for distribution by Shudder and is available for streaming there.)

I suspect that Laotian folklore hangs in the background of much of what happens in Dearest Sister – much like Western folklore hangs in the background of most American horror films. There are, no doubt, cultural elements that factor into the narrative that went completely over my head. And more: Most of the action chronicles the uneasy kinship between two women, related by blood, but kept asunder by a sharp class divide – Ana married into fortune and her cousin, the destitute Nok, travelled from her village to work for her and send the money back home – which is a scenario that a Midwestern American preacher boy like myself cannot possibly understand.

But as a human story, and a horror story, Dearest Sister invites us to empathize with Nok and Ana, and, perhaps, even Jakob (Ana’s husband) and the (perhaps understandably) vindictive household servants who frequently torment Nok and endanger Ana. As I’ve written elsewhere, good horror can be oddly humanizing.

Which is to say, we ought to see ourselves in these characters – none of whom are protagonists, each of whom play into a web of cyclical depredation that will continue undisturbed so long as we remain ourselves. As we struggle against one another like contestants in a cosmic Gladiator match, we join in that chorus begun by Lamech years ago: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; / you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: / I have killed a man for wounding me, / a young man for striking me. / If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, / then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen. 4:23-24)

That is, human guilt has a face – it is not just some doxological vagary, reinforced by centuries of heavy-handed indoctrination by villainous clergymen, and internalized by the captive populace as the generations went on. It is, instead, a universal phenomenon with a concrete shape. We are all bound up together, victims and victimizers alike, because we are all both – though, naturally, some are more one than the other. We are inextricably linked, inseparable from one another, and inseparable from the suffering we inflict on one another and ourselves. Guilt is never arbitrary, and the Bible never suggests that it is. It is never simply that you did some-magical-something wrong. Even in, say, Leviticus, doing something wrong always means doing somebody wrong.

In some sense, then, the whole of human guilt is an extension of our own. Nok and I are co-laborers in a vast structure of which we’re scarcely conscious, and whose blueprint we often follow rather predictably. Her sin and mine are different, like her sin and Ana’s are different, but we are the same. She really is my ‘dearest sister’, and the family resemblance is shocking. We’re all wronging each other, all of us, somehow, all the time. It’s a cycle. It never ends. And it’s exhausting.

And all of this could mean absolutely nothing. It is easier, perhaps, to chalk up the phenomena described above to a kind of sprawling indifference on the part of the cosmos to our being here – that there is no end towards which this is all heading, and there is no narrative.

There are no protagonists, we might suspect, because there are no characters. We inhabit neither a ‘story’ nor a stage. We are simply agents. We just exist. The things that happen only happen because they happened.

Any patterns we might identify in the gradual unfolding of history are imagined, we might go on, because there is no ‘history’. There are only events, each one an inconsequential product of some cause, somewhere, which became some effect, somewhere, giving birth to the manifold backdrops against which we find ourselves ‘acting’.

And so hope, insofar as it means anything other than our ‘hoping’ that more things will play out to our liking than not, is a non-sequitur. This is not the sort of world, we might conclude, from which we have grounds to expect anything more.

I remember being young and wanting to be an atheist – writing journal entries like God didn’t exist, like I’d happened upon forgotten treasure, some long buried gift He’d gave. “The Man plain doesn’t exist.” I wrote, once. “That’s His gift to us. So be fruitful and multiply.” 

I picked Percy Shelley for an English report because he didn’t have a friend in Jesus. He died in a boat crash that his biographers say he wanted to happen. A girl in my class said that maybe he wanted it to happen because he didn’t have a friend in Jesus. At the time, I hadn’t known there were people who didn’t want to die in a boat crash, at least a little.

I wrote that Percy was a ‘prophet’, mostly because he criticized what I and everyone else I knew held dear – I held ‘God’ real tight because, as we all knew, He was something to hold real tight to. And I prayed He’d make my life by not existing. (“That’s His gift to us. So be fruitful and multiply.”) Shelley was a prophet, so far as I knew, because he saw in Jesus and His motley crew what unbelievers see – and then spoke what he saw, and what I saw. There was something about the whole business of the Bible that ought to have been more troubling than it was, I figured. These were miracles of a particular sort – the Bible was an embrace of the sort of things that don’t happen. 

Percy didn’t think they happened, and I didn’t think they happened, although I did think they had happened, because God was something to hold real tight to even if the details you know about His life aren’t the sort of things that happen. 

It wasn’t that they were improbable. There seemed to be no reason to disbelieve in the supernatural, and the idea that the Bible had been revised and updated over the centuries comforted rather than casting doubt on its trustworthiness. I figured centuries of reflection would tend to sharpen rather than dull its contents.

I had heard that the Bible was a book of things that didn’t happen, which, if true, would be noteworthy. But my unbelief was different – a quiet disbelief in the gospel, which I shared with almost no one. Percy spoke for me because he thought the Bible was a book of things that don’t happen, even if they did happen. Within its pages, hope was inscripturated – and that was more than I could bring myself to believe, so I wrote a report on Percy, who didn’t have a friend in Jesus, because I didn’t.

My ninth grade English teacher loved it. She was a member at my parents’ church and I don’t think she saw what I was getting at. I journaled about it and laughed. “If you want to know what God’s like, ask an atheist before you check your Bible,” I scribbled. Percy would have told me that He probably didn’t exist and His wife was a whore. Then I could have opened my Bible (the sort of thing I never did) and found that the Church had canonized far harsher critics than Percy Shelley had ever been. Maybe all roads lead to Rome if you actually walk them.

I wrote a short story around then, because I liked a girl who liked books, and that seemed fool-proof. She never did read it, but it was better than my strange, naval-gazing report on the lesser Shelley. It had a boy about my age named Thomas Barclay, on a mission not to inherit his father’s pulpit. His battle plan is ill-conceived, though, and mostly amounts to having sex with girls a year or two younger so he’s disqualified from the office on account of his wayward lifestyle. To his surprise, he finds the deacons unwilling to relent in their campaign to ordain him to the gospel ministry (I did not understand how churches worked when I was fifteen). 

At every new indiscretion, he’d find their judgement clouded – he ought to be left alone in favor of a more savory candidate, he thought, but the men tasked with sizing him up for the pastorate were encumbered by some strange, insatiable grace. 

In what he assumes will be the last straw, he deflowers a deacon’s daughter. It is not the last straw, however – the deacon cries at the foot of the bed upon finding them, and tells them that he isn’t angry, that he wished they’d followed their lessons from Sunday school, that he loves them both dearly, and that he’d see Thomas for his preparatory session on Thursday – and Barclay finally acquiesces to their designs for him. “I think God’s in your blood,” says the deacon’s young daughter, still in bed after their final liaison. “He’s going nowhere.” Like a dad-blamed disease, Thomas whispers to himself. “Maybe ’cause you come from every which kind of minister,” she runs her fingers through his hair. “Or maybe it just dies hard.”

*

Well, it turns out if God’s in your blood, He’s in your blood. I wrote that story as an unbeliever – insofar as you can be one in the Bible belt, but it rings truer now. I guess there was too much Thomas Barclay in me to ever really be an atheist – the Bible’s still a book full of things that don’t happen, but God’s in my blood, and the Bible’s a book full of things that almost certainly did happen. And when you’re open to it, the world looks more and more like the sort of place where these things do happen, and did happen – and so the only way to tell the truth, really, is to inscripturate hope, however unlikely it reads to men and women without eyes, like myself.

I didn’t know it then, but Thomas Barclay and the Holy Ghost was plenty true. Certainly truer than my journal entries, and everything I wrote about Percy Shelley. Maybe he wasn’t a prophet. But he was a poet, a proverbist. Or whatever Qoheleth was. There’s something true to be ascertained in his hostility, his rebellion against hope inscripturated, and his death by shipwreck – if nothing else, that there are two worlds:

There’s a world where the Bible’s eschatological hopefulness is plausible, and one where struggle’s hardly better than death. Shelley left behind at least(!) two wives and the kids that come along with it. I can relate – monogamy is unnatural, and one lover will never be enough for those unencumbered by that strange, thoroughgoing hope that turned Barclay’s deacons into dullards with questionable judgment and a seemingly bottomless capacity to endure wrongs. Everybody’s haunted by the phantom of contentment, and monogamy is unnatural.

And, too – one lover will never be enough for those who are familiar with this strange mercy, either. But one product of this eschatological hopefulness, perhaps, is a willingness to endure and even enjoy life amidst discontent. In the sort of world where the Bible’s a book of things that do happen, I don’t need to be fulfilled. In some sense, perhaps, I can befriend my discontent. Struggle really is better than death. 

Some time after my young protagonist learned this, I followed suit. 

And I pray that we all will – that we’d all get God in our blood, and our grandchildren become preachers instead of drinking their neighbors dry for satisfaction. That we’ll all get God in our blood and sail our ships back home to husbands and wives who can’t satisfy us, and love them amidst inscrutable discontent. I pray we’ll do unnatural things like be monogamous or spend our money on somebody else’s subsistence instead of our satisfaction, because God’s in our blood and it turns us unnatural – that He goes nowhere, like a disease, and it dies hard.

I don’t know anything about Mattie Do, except that she’s from Laos, and that she’s already a maestro behind the camera. Her film is gritty, and chilling, so long as you’re not numb to the entropy of everything. Critics harboring a kind of professional contempt for the horror genre have a habit of dismissing films like Dearest Sister as ‘nihilistic’. Maybe it is. But if that’s the case, I must have missed something very important.

It’s a tragic story, and deeply depressing. But that does not mean that everything she’s shown us is meaningless. we’re compelled to suggest that it’s quite the opposite.

(8.5/10) 

You can stream Dearest Sister for free on Shudder.

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