Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Mattie Do: Horror Film? It’s all Ballet.

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By Chan Sze-Wei

(903 words, 5 minute read)

Many things have been written about Mattie Do, the pioneering female film director from Laos. She’s put her country’s horror films on the world festival map. “She wears international laurels including the BFI London Film Festival and is an alumni of the Cannes Film Festival’s Les Cinemas du Monde with a sassy badass sense of humour and glamorous heels.” But I’m curious about the intersection of Mattie the director and Mattie the ballerina, whom I met five years ago at a small dance festival in Vientiane, and in whose living room I practiced tendus and jetes with a home-made barre.

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Chan Sze-Wei (first from right) and Mattie Do (in shorts) at Mattie’s home studio in Laos. Photo by Keith Vieira

It’s hard to believe that Mattie went from ballerina-cosmetologist to film director overnight. Unless I imagine that this took place in a small country and city, and that one was at the right place at the right time? (And that I might imagine such things happening in Singapore too?) When her screenwriter husband’s employers asked him to start directing, he replied that he wasn’t a director but pointed to Mattie and said “She speaks Lao! She could do it!” She took a directing textbook and the memory of the favourite horror films of her childhood, and made her first film, the feature Chanthaly (2012).

Her latest film, Dearest Sister (Nong Hak) begins when Nok is propelled from her village into the city to accompany her cousin Ana, who is is married to a wealthy Estonian expat but is losing her sight. As Nok stumbles through a world of class divisions and envy, she realises that Ana’s blurred vision is accompanied by gruesome ghosts who whisper lucky lottery numbers. When Ana discovers that Nok has concealed the numbers to her own profit, their companionship transforms into hate and violence.

Still from Dearest Sister. Photo by Mart Ratassepp
Still from Dearest Sister. Photo by Mart Ratassepp

When I watch her new film Dearest Sister at the Singapore International Film Festival in December 2016, it’s clear to me that the distinctive aesthetic of her films is rooted in dance. The tension of her scenography and the timing of the sparse dialogue? “It’s all ballet! When you’re a ballet dancer, dance is the one motivation in your work. I knew on screen what I wanted the work to be and how I wanted my actors to react.” The mute narrative of classical ballet informs her eye for detail of the hand and the foot, and gestures that speak without words.

From a past as a dancer rather than a choreographer, her mind’s eye is often framed in close up. “I can actually transport the audience onto the stage with me and have them experience what we feel as dancers when we perform, our closeness and our intimacy to each other. When the corps de ballet surges around you and you feel the brush of each other’s tutus and shoulders as a dancer, and you feel like the only one moving through the ocean of bodies…”

Mattie has never seen herself as a choreographer, admitting that she does not feel confident enough to create her own stylized physical vocabulary. In her case, it’s clear that the work of performance interpreter has in fact generated her aesthetic and a choreography of gesture and emotional intensity. Film is now a channel for expression that she would never have had in classical dance. “In dance, the harsh reality is at the end of the day that I am not good enough. [In film,] I can still dance with my performers as a director, I can still create a performance, and I can still be in a studio of sorts, but the thing is, I can be accepted doing it.”

While in Singapore, Mattie visits the the dance film workshop that I am taking with dance film-maker Sue Healey, and is astonished at the rough cuts that we are working on. The highest compliment: “This is horror film!” She points out the intimate connection of classical ballet plots and the supernatural – and we recall that the first pointe shoes were used in the 1800s to allow Marie Taglioni’s sylph to appear more ethereal and ghost-like. What better partner for Asian superstitions? She shows us footage from Chanthaly, the mother’s ghost crawling up a bed shrouded in a Giselle veil.

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Still from Dearest Sister. Photo by Chris Larsen

Her plots are portraits of Lao families and Lao society today. She is the first Lao director to anchor her stories with strong and complex female protagonists. At the same time, she is “constantly thinking about how to avoid exoticising our cultures and our Asian-ness.” Having grown up in a Lao-Vietnamese family in California, she is aware of her double perspective of outsider and insider. “I’m here to show what I observe in certain situations and at the end of the day, tell a good story. I didn’t come to vomit all over the West about how mysterious and Oriental my people are… that is not storytelling, that is masturbation. I wonder more often than not if it doesn’t just make first world people feel more fortunate to watch that kind of exotic Oriental Poverty Porn.”

I ask why she feels compelled to situate her work here in Southeast Asia when she is equally comfortable in LA or in Rome. “I would love to make films in California now, but before, if Mattie had never left California, she would never be making films.” She sees herself returning to the Salt Lake City Ballet Conservatory to make her first dance film. That, however, will have to wait till she’s done with her third feature in Laos, which she describes as “a time travel serial killer science-fiction film”.


Guest Contributor Chan Sze-Wei stepped into a dance class for a university P.E. requirement, and hasn’t stopped dancing since. She graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Diploma in Dance) in 2011 and the London Contemporary Dance School (M.A. Contemporary Dance) in 2016. Blending conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, performance installation and film, her work is often intimate and sometimes invasively personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender. Her work has been shown in Singapore, London, Indonesia, Laos, Taiwan and Croatia. She is currently an Associate Artist of the Dance Nucleus (Singapore) and a member of the PG Gang collective (London).

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