When we see a scary ghost or monster in a horror movie, our first reaction is usually to view it as the villain of the film. We’re pretty much conditioned to immediately judge supernatural entities by their appearances, but those judgments aren’t always correct. There are some movies that break the mold and subordinate their fantastical elements to more down-to-earth horrors, and in doing so they make a point about what evil really looks like in our world. Those are often some of the best, most thought-provoking rides the genre can give us, and Dearest Sister, a 2016 Lao film streaming exclusively on Shudder, is one of those movies.
It’s about a young woman named Nok who leaves her poor, rural village and goes off to live with her wealthy cousin Ana, Ana’s husband Jakob, and their servants. Ana is suffering from a strange illness that blurs her sight so much she’s practically blind, and she needs someone to help care for her. Her condition also causes her to see frightening, sometimes violent visions of ghosts, and when we first encounter these ghosts, we think they’re going to be the film’s antagonists.
However, by the end of the movie, we realize that they’re the least of the characters’ problems. The real villains here are greed and selfishness, and they cause much more damage than any of Ana’s supernatural visions ever could. Dearest Sister weaves a complex web of lies, hatred, and revenge that stems from the characters’ unscrupulous pursuit of their own greedy desires and leads to a chilling and heart wrenching finale.
Soon after Nok arrives, Ana has one of her violent visions, and when Nok goes to help her, she finds Ana sitting on the floor whispering a succession of three seemingly random numbers. At this point, we don’t know what those numbers mean, but the film soon gives us a clue. The following morning, Ana and Jakob pay Nok for the first time, and she’s supposed to send the money to her family. However, she has other plans. She gets a bit greedy and uses it to buy some new clothes, and on a hunch, she also picks up a lotto ticket with the numbers Ana whispered.
This is the first time the movie lets us in on its secret: the real villains here aren’t supernatural. As scary as the ghosts are, they’re not truly dangerous. Sure, they can be a bit violent, but they don’t cause any lasting harm. At worst, they cause minor injuries that Ana can just bandage up and allow to heal on their own. These spirits’ bark is a lot bigger than their bite, so they end up just being an occasion for the real monsters to emerge.
The villain that Ana really needs to worry about is Nok. She went there specifically to earn money for her family, but she steals it and keeps it for herself instead. What’s worse, she doesn’t steal it to buy things she genuinely needs. Yes, she’s poor, but she doesn’t need new clothes, and she definitely doesn’t need a lotto ticket. She just wants to feed her selfish greed, and she has no qualms about leaving her loved ones high and dry.
But Nok isn’t the only greedy character in Dearest Sister. That night, Jakob explains to Ana that a UN auditor is going to visit his business, and he’s in danger of losing his entire livelihood from it. He doesn’t say what exactly the auditor might find, but he’s involved in some really shady stuff. We learn later on that he’s cut some corners to help save him and his company money, so in a very real sense, he’s just like Nok.
He doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he can come home with a bigger paycheck, so just like his cousin-in-law, his greed and selfishness are also much more dangerous than Ana’s supernatural visions. Everything he and his wife have is built on greed and deception, so they’re in danger of losing it all, which is much worse than anything Ana has ever experienced from the ghosts she sees.
The next day, Nok discovers that her lotto ticket had the winning numbers, and she uses the money to secretly buy a smartphone. Again, Nok lets her selfish greed get the best of her. By winning the lotto, she had a chance to make up for her previous indiscretion. She could have sent her family the money she was supposed to give them when she got paid, but she didn’t. She kept it all for herself and bought another unnecessary luxury item instead, showing once more than she really doesn’t care about anybody but herself.
After this, Ana continues having violent incidents, and the third time it happens, Nok really turns into a monster. She sees the vision happening, but she doesn’t try to help until she hears Ana whisper the numbers. Only after she gets what she needs for another winning lotto ticket does she finally go comfort her cousin.
With this, Nok definitively shows that she really doesn’t care about Ana. It’s bad enough that she was using Ana’s violent visions for her own selfish ends, but this takes it to a whole different level. The other two times, she only got to Ana after the vision was over, but this time she was there in time to help her cousin before it even started. She purposely refused to help Ana and instead allowed her to experience another harrowing, potentially dangerous vision just so she could get some more winning lotto numbers.
And that’s not even the worst part. After the vision is over, Ana realizes that the “ghost” she saw was actually her mother, so she calls her parents to make sure they’re alright. They answer and say that everything is fine, but her mother has a serious car accident a few hours later. She ends up dying soon afterwards, but before she does, Ana tells her father about her vision and the numbers she recited. She doesn’t know what to make of the numbers, but he guesses that they’re lotto numbers sent to help them pay his wife’s medical expenses.
He asks Nok to buy a ticket for him with the numbers Ana whispered, and she seems to comply. However, we soon learn that she actually kept the correct ticket for herself and gave him a different one with the wrong numbers. When Ana’s numbers turn out to be correct once again, Nok cashes in the winning ticket and doesn’t say a word to anybody else.
This time, Nok really outdoes herself. Not only has she been using her cousin for her own selfish ends, and not only did she purposely refrain from helping Ana just so she could get more winning lotto tickets, but she goes one step further and takes advantage of a man in pain just so she can make a buck. After this despicable act of deception, you can’t help but wonder how low Nok would be willing to go to feed her greed. It seems like there isn’t anybody she would feel bad about lying to or defrauding just so she can get more money and buy more luxury items.
A little while later, Ana gets a call from Nok’s family saying that they haven’t received any of her money yet, and Nok admits everything she’s been doing. This is a key turning point in the film. Up until now, Ana has been scared of the ghosts and entirely oblivious to Nok’s treachery, but when Nok’s family calls, she finally finds out who the real monster is. She realizes that her cousin is worse than any of the scary visions she’s been having, and she is furious. In her anger, she kicks Nok out of the house and makes her live out in the servants’ quarters, relegating her to the status of a stranger who simply happens to be related to her.
The next morning, Ana goes to Thailand to have surgery on her eyes, and the servants have parties in the house at night while the owners are gone. They trash the place, so when Ana and Jakob get back, they fire them and send them away. This event adds a third layer to the theme of greed and selfishness in Dearest Sister. Like Nok and Jakob, the servants only care about themselves. They show no concern for other people’s property, nor do they care about their responsibility to take care of the house while Ana and Jakob are gone. All that matters to them is having a good time regardless of who it hurts or whose property it damages.
Toward the end of the film, Jakob needs to go away for a bit to tend to his business’s legal troubles, and he brings Nok back into the house to care for his wife while he’s gone. However, Nok refuses to do anything for her cousin, and she even goes so far as to move everything around so Ana won’t know where anything is. After a few days of this, Ana manages to get a hold of Nok’s phone, and she calls Jakob asking him to come home and help her. She then has a vision of her husband, and when the vision disappears, she recites more numbers, which Nok overhears.
Soon afterward, Jakob really does arrive back at their house, but just as he’s about to enter, one of their old servants sneaks up behind him and smacks him on the head with a shovel. They have returned to the house to steal whatever they can from former employers. They lock Ana and Nok in the washroom with a dying Jakob, and as the former servants are looting the house, Ana has one last vision. This time, she sees herself and Nok, and the last thing we see is the two of them grabbing blades, presumably about to kill each other and fulfill Ana’s prophetic vision.
This tragic ending is the culmination of an entire movie’s worth of greed and selfishness from Nok, Jakob, and the servants. Nok’s lies about money destroyed her relationship with Ana, leading to their mutual murder at the very end of the film. Jakob’s unethical business practices led to him being away at the end of the movie, so he couldn’t defend his home when the servants attacked. And finally, the servants’ selfishness in throwing a party and coming back to loot the house led directly to the deaths of the three main characters.
By making its true monsters greed and selfishness rather than the ghosts in Ana’s frightening visions, Dearest Sister makes an important point about the nature of evil: it doesn’t always look evil. Sometimes the scariest looking things are actually quite benign, and sometimes the worst people in the world are the ones who look innocent and unassuming.
In this way, the film is a cautionary tale about these terrible vices. They can start out small, maybe with just a lotto ticket or a few money-saving business shortcuts, and they can live inside anybody, even those from whom seem the sweetest and most harmless. They may not look like big problems at first, but in the end they can lead to utter disaster. If we let them fester inside of us, they will grow and grow until nothing can satiate their unholy hunger, and just like the selfishness and greed of Nok, Jakob, and the servants, they can lead to utter ruin for us and the people closest to us.