Despite working with limited funds, the spectre of state censorship and the difficulty of only having three working cinemas in the country, local directors are creating a thriving film industry in Laos
Mattie Do does not hold back. In her films, the women drink, they wear lingerie, they steal, they murder. In the final moments of Dearest Sister, Do’s 2016 horror, protagonist Nok and her blind cousin Ana are held captive by Ana’s former servants. In a feverish confrontation, Ana charges towards her cousin, knife in hand. The screen goes black. For Do, Laotian girls are not “innocent, mystic lotus blossoms subservient to men… We burned that myth up.”
Shot with an eerie delicacy that forgoes traditional jump-scares, Dearest Sister is less concerned with blood and guts than with telling an authentic story of social class that is causing a stir in conservative Laos.
“It highlighted Laos in probably one of the most raw and truthful ways that anyone has ever seen on screen,” says Do, by all accounts the first and only female film director in the country.
Refusing to fall back on outdated tropes of Asian cinema – depictions of the elite upper class or demeaning poverty porn, according to Do – the film shocked audiences. “It shows a lot of our hierarchy, the way our society is built around materialism… and it showed the way rich people in Laos treat people from lower economic classes and our obsession with trying to climb up to that upper echelon… so we can further the cycle of treating lower class people like slaves. It’s a pretty harsh film actually,” Do says.
The $250,000 production – only the 13th feature film in the country’s history – didn’t just strike a nerve with local audiences, it also became the first movie that Laos has submitted to the Academy Awards.
Prior to 1975, film was virtually non-existent in Laos save for the propaganda produced and screened by the country’s warring royalist and communist camps. And it would be 2008 before the country produced its first independent feature film, Good Morning Luang Prabang. Directed by Sakchai Deenan, it was a deliberately simple romantic comedy that conformed to the government’s censorship policies. At the time, though, it was optimistically touted as the push that the country’s nascent film industry needed. In the end, with funds desperately lacking and the watchful eye of the communist government’s Cinema Department overseeing the industry, things moved slowly.
Read Cristyn Lloyd’s report on developments in the Lao film industry in the February issue of Southeast Asia Globe.
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