When examining great moments in film history, Laos very rarely – if ever – rates a mention. Even though this South East Asian nation found its place very early on the world cinema map thanks to Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s silent action-adventure film, Chang: A Drama on the Wilderness (1925)1, Laotian cinema failed to incubate and was relegated to the likes of royalist and communist propaganda films in the decades of civil rights conflicts following Laos independence from France in 1949 and communist control from 1975 onwards.2
It was as recent as 2008 that Laos’ first privately funded film in 30 years was released, Good Morning, Luang Prabang (directed by Sakchai Deenan, Anousone Sirisackda), although the filmmakers purposefully crafted a ‘soft’ storyline to ensure approval from the government.3 It would be a stretch to say the local film industry is now thriving but more and more Lao films are being produced,4, including the beginnings of a unique breed of Lao horror from filmmaker Mattie Do.
Mattie has not only managed to translate the paranoias of Lao society and the plight of women to screen in a highly compelling manner but she has also put Laos on the Academy Awards radar with her second film, Dearest Sister (2016), the nation’s first submission for a foreign language Oscar nomination.5 This is a big deal for Laos’ fledgling industry but one in which Do remains circumspect.
When asked how the possible Oscar nomination is progressing, she diplomatically says, “We are a small country with no representation… and no chance (laughs). We’re just proud and ecstatic whenever anyone writes about us but we are not delusional about the fact that our little genre film cannot compete with a $30 million epic film the likes of [Angelina Jolie’s] First They Killed My Father or even [Ruben Östlund’s] The Square, [Robin Campillo’s] BPM and [Andrey Zvyagintsev’s] Loveless. It’s hard to think that $100,000 is half of my entire film’s budget. I can’t even consider putting that money towards a publicist to get an Oscar nomination.”
So, as Mattie Do waits in Laos – “eating her cup noodles”, as she so eloquently puts it – she still has much to be proud of; Oscar nomination or no Oscar nomination. She joins the ranks of a large number of South East Asian women filmmakers also put forward for Oscar recognition yet, until her debut feature, Chanthaly, in 2012, she had very little interest in being a filmmaker, let alone pitching for Oscar limelight.
Mattie Do was born in the USA, the daugher of refugee parents (Lao mother and Vietnamese father) who were escaping the atrocities of war and political instability. Settling into a new land was relatively easy for her family given the diversity of cultures in California. While one would assume the Los Angeles lifestyle had introduced her to cinema, she says that her reality was actually very Vietnamese; what she describes as living in “the heart of pho making, not filmmaking.”
Do was drawn to the world of ballet but still heeded her mother’s practical advice and trained in makeup and beauty so she had a skill to support her artistic endeavours. “I could do things like nails and hair and makeup, and make enough to buy my pointe shoes because those suckers are not cheap!” she admits.
She met her screenwriter husband (Christopher Larsen) while she was working in a nail salon, then ended up doing hair and make up for film productions he worked on before transitioning into a teaching and administration role at her ballet institution. After her mother passed away, her father surprised them all by returning to Laos and announcing his sudden decision to marry again to a Lao woman. The family intervened. Given Do “wasn’t bound in some government job” but “bound in the arts field” instead, she was deemed the most likely to head to Laos and ensure her father wasn’t making a terrible mistake. Thankfully, he was not, and Mattie and her husband remained in Laos.
For someone who never dreamt of becoming a filmmaker, Mattie Do has done an impressive job. Not only has she helped create the foundations of a film industry in Laos’ capital of Vientiane but she has made two two impressive feature films that draw from superstition to tell female-centric stories about jealousy and repression.
In Chanthaly, such a story is presented through the eyes and intuition of a sickly young woman who is largely kept under lock and key in the family enclave by an over-protective father. She starts to have visions, which she believes are messages from her dead mother. In Dearest Sister, Mattie Do’s film submitted for Oscar nomination, she pits two women together – cousins – in a bitter class struggle. One is blind and, through her disability, appears to be developing a sixth sense that enables her to see ghostly apparitions and predict lottery numbers.
How does a reluctant filmmaker get to this point? Mattie Do explains…
Emma Westwood: Considering the film industry is virtually non-existent in Laos, how did you end up making films there?
Mattie Do: It was completely just luck and, actually, accidental. I had no desire to make films and I didn’t even think filmmaking was a thing that ‘normal’ people could do.
One day, [my husband and I] ran into some guy at a cafe who said he was going to a party for the launch of this film festival – Laos’ first film festival – the Luang Prabang Film Festival. Basically, we decided to crash the party. We thought, if anything, at least there’s free drinks, and we met the director of that festival, as well as basically all the film people [of Laos] at that time. We ran into President and Vice President of Lao Art Media, Anousone Sirisackda and Douangmany Soliphanh, and they said, “Let’s meet at the office tomorrow.”
The people at Lao Art Media needed content and they got this wild idea that I should direct films. My husband said, “That’s a perfect idea because she’s super pro at performing arts.” My reaction was, “Pro at performing arts? I teach six-year-olds to line-up and I’m lucky if they know the difference between their right and left foot.” But, that is how I became a filmmaker – because I worked with non-actors. Dearest Sister was the first film that I got to work with an actual actor. I don’t want to say it was intimidating but it was strange because real actors have technique and I don’t know what acting technique is. I wasn’t trained in any form of acting technique, I just have conversations with my actors until they give me the result that I want.
Obviously your background in ballet has been a huge influence on your work. How do you see that coming out in your first two films?
The entire story of Chanthaly is basically the narrative of the ballet Giselle. If you’re a ballet aficionado, you can name the characters just by watching the film. Giselle is a very old ballet – a big one – by Adolphe Adam, whereas Dearest Sister is very loosely based on La Bayadère which was Russian and choreographed by Marius Petipa.
So ballet sows the seeds of your inspiration? But your husband, Christopher Larsen, writes your films while you direct, yes?
I create my own stories – my husband writes them but I create my own stories and I give him the idea of what I want to have on the page and he then makes the rest of the story work. I come to him with vague ideas, like what I think could be a beginning and an end. With Dearest Sister, I definitely thought of the end first, and then the beginning, and then he fleshed out the rest of the story for me.
How did you find your lead Lao actor, Amphaiphun Phommapunya, for Chanthaly, who went on to perform in Dearest Sister too?
She was a young girl who was trying to record a pop single because Lao Art Media at that time was both a music and production company. They had this group of young aspiring talent and, as practice, Lao Art Media and my husband wanted me to work with some of these people to get them into acting, but also they needed to learn how to present themselves in their music videos and on stage, etc. So we decided to do sessions with them and record the sessions, and I wish I had those sessions because it was really interesting. She just looked really amazing on camera. We recorded these little training sessions with some short sides that my husband had written and she just had this really cool presence that I liked about her.
How did you rally everyone together in such a ‘relaxed’ environment such as Laos, given time is such an issue in film?
It was a huge issue. We had to put our foot down. But we’ve also had to roll with things too because, if you get too upset and angry, then people lose face and they won’t come back to work either. I really saw talent in Amphaiphun so I decided to pursue it with her. When I said, ‘I would like to make a film with you’, she was kind of interested but I told her that first we had to practice. Lao Art Media had this TV series talent show happening so they suggested that I should direct and she could be the Simon-Cowell-like host. So I worked with her many days and many nights and, I don’t want to say I broke her but, literally, I think, in the end, I got her to understand the importance of responsibility for the camera and for the crew. She grew to love it herself.
As well as French involvement, there is Estonian involvement in the production of Dearest Sister, which saw your budget increase from US$4,500 with Chanthaly to US$250,000. How did that come about?
It’s interesting, the Estonian involvement, because that was probably the biggest cultural shock. There’s still a French presence here in Laos, with French restaurants and cafes and bakeries, and signs that are in French. For us and for the French team, I think it was actually not that difficult a cultural boundary for us to overcome in working together. But, for the Estonians, it was difficult, they came from zero degrees to 40 degrees, so they were filming in their swimsuits all the time: not that they were being offensive and insensitive white folk who refused to wear clothes, but that they were just melting in the jungle.
Dearest Sister’s script was selected for La Fabrique des Cinemas du Monde, which is part of the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a L’Institut Français au Festival de Cannes collaboration to find 10 films from the rest of the world that are not Europe or America. When we got accepted, I seriously was shocked. I read the letter a couple of times and thought maybe my French is really shite but we got accepted. They throw you into the project market in Cannes and you just get exposed in this almost speed dating style to pitch to different co-producers from all over the world. That is where I met the Estonians. I pitched the project to them and they were interested.”
Your two films have been centred on women but it feels as though these women are pitted as enemies with very little sisterhood between them. Why is that so?
I see it as a reflection of society in general. As women, we have to contend with men; the world is quite heavily dominated by men, of course. But only recently – in both South East Asian and western society – have I felt that we’ve been helpful to each other in this new wave of modern-day feminism, which is more about empowering each other. Before that, growing up, I felt like I always had to fight against women too, because there was this world of oneupmanship and jealousy, and just trying to get ahead. How could you blame other women? The chips are already stacked against them so when it came time for a woman to try and save herself, or become successful, sometimes she would have to tear down fellow women. That’s just been my personal experience, especially in film.
Even now, I have to teach myself not to be so wary of other people, because I grew up in a ballet environment, and in a refugee immigrant environment, where I think the first assumption is not always that someone is there to help you. In film, I worked with this co-production once where there was a bunch of western women. They were on the hair and makeup and wardrobe team, and it every time you took a step, there’s someone trying to tear you down, or stab you in the back, or destroy you, or make you look bad to the other producers and make you look bad to the other director or something. What is going on? Aren’t we all on the same film set to try and like reach the same goal? The goal of making a fucking film? It was all about who could gain favour in the eyes of the important man, and who can tear down the other people to look better and who can be thrown under the bus. That was shocking to me. For a long time, I was really wary of working with other women because it was such a harrowing experience for me.
My actors have always been women because I find women’s stories very interesting, and I’m a woman myself. Women’s stories aren’t told in Laos. They’re always the object of affection that’s a hot, pure, innocent girl that isn’t aware that she’s every man’s desire crying over having a broken heart so I wanted to share women’s stories and it’s been a great experience. But I kind of attribute [this great experience] to the fact that the people I work with here in Laos aren’t film people, they’re just normal people. My actress was a waitress, my other actress is a model and a singer, even my line producer before she became a line producer, she was just a girl working at Lao Art Media delivering catering to the set. In the Lao ‘film industry’, I work with normal people, and that’s where I learned that it’s not about our gender, it’s about ego. Ego doesn’t come with gender, ego comes with this idea or this hierarchy film has established over the years.
And the cult of celebrity?
I think so, and we don’t have celebrity in Laos. All our celebrities are from overseas – Thai people or the American celebrities. In Laos itself, the closest to a celebrity is my actress who played the blind girl [in Dearest Sister], Ana [Vilouna Phetmany], and even then she just goes out in her shorts and has a beer at the riverside with her friends, and nobody comes and bothers her. Even the Estonians, when they first came here, one of my interns who started out as an art assistant, he ran up to me while we were setting up the camera and asked me which candles I preferred to put on the table. The Estonian producer, who was also in charge of art, stepped in between us and got super pissed off at him – “You do not talk to the director about minor decisions like that. You talk to me or you talk to someone else in the art department but you cannot just go up to the director and talk to the director.” He was so shocked and I said, “No, no, no – it’s OK. This is how we do it in Laos. This is what we do. We are literally 10 or 12 people. If I can’t talk to my art assistant, what the hell are we doing here?”
Your stories are very universal in their storytelling but also South East Asian in their focus and then Lao in their detail. For example, why does the supernatural resonate so strongly with South East Asian audiences?
We still believe in [the supernatural]. A lot of South East Asians still consider it very very real. In Laos, we have shrines and spirit houses outside of our homes. We still make offerings during… I don’t know how to say this in English, but once a month there’s a full moon period and we believe that the veil is thinner during that time. It’s the lunar cycle and we have to go out and give special offerings and do special temple ceremonies and stuff. We’re still very traditional in a lot of ways. We still believe in possession, we still believe in hauntings, we still believe in rebirth and reincarnation. If I was to say that I was being haunted, no one would say, “No, you’re not.” They would ask for more details. They would believe me right away.
The dominant religion in Laos is Buddhism but we also have a lot of ethnic religions, like a lot of people practice animism etc., especially in the rural countryside. Before we would start filming every day, we have to do a Baci ceremony, which is where we make offerings to spirits, and ask for andt and luck, and, to not basically cause turmoil on our film set.
So it’s your Lao heritage that we can see coming out in your films?
Yes and no. I want to make films that are super unique because I’m bored by modern-day films, to be honest. They all seem to be kind of the same. The first time I ever went to a film festival was when i made Chanthaly. I saw all these amazing films that never go to the theatre and I felt that these were the kind of films I wanted to make. I also got to see a lot more films that are supposed to be authentically Asian that didn’t feel Asian, much less South East Asian to me in my summation, in my experience and perspective. Nobody in South East Asia is sitting around being all thoughtful and gazing into the breeze looking at the wind with rustling leaves for 15 minutes with this one thousand yard stare, meditating and being calm. No one’s whispering or acting like mystic lotuses to each other. No, we’re active, we’re vibrant, we’re yelling at each other across the room. We’re colourful, we’re not this desaturated palette that everyone wants us to be. This is the kind of Asian film made to pander to the occidental audience and I fucking hate it. I think there’s a place for it, I think there are some beautiful works and they deserve to be recognised but I don’t think that’s the definition of Asian or authentic Asian film because it’s not fair to my people to have our culture represented in only that way. I wanted to make something that felt like what my experience of South East Asia.
Why the horror genre? Did you watch horror films when you were growing up?”
I just like horror. A lot. I watched so many inappropriate films when I was young because my father was an immigrant who didn’t know the rating system. He would just rent all kinds of crazy films for us. My mother had this rule that if he couldn’t watch it with the rest of the family then we couldn’t watch it at all. So he was like, “Alright, kids, we’re watching Nightmare on Elm Street today!”
I have memories of going to the video store every Friday – the rental video stores with mildew-smelling carpets – and my dad would be picking a movie and he would always let us kids pick one so we would pick them from the cover. Remember how they would put the empty boxes on the shelves and the best covers were always the kids movies and horror movies? So that’s what I grew up watching – kids movies and horror movies. You could ask me about any love story, rom-com, drama but I’d have no clue. My film background is so empty. And it doesn’t help that I spent most of my adult years in a dance conservatory, not watching film. I have no background on the classic films, on any dramas or anything but if you mention April Fools Day or the freaking Puppet Master then I’m like, “Oh, yeah!”
Have you mixed with many women filmmakers in Asia? How do you find yourself fitting into the current landscape of Asian filmmakers in general?
I’ve only met them now that I’ve become a filmmaker, which is only very recently and they’re pretty amazing, they’re awesome. I don’t know if you have noticed but the Oscar nomination submissions from South East Asia are mainly from women filmmakers. Even if they weren’t directed by women, they were produced by women. They’re very passionate, similar to myself. Regardless of whether we’re women or not, we would be doing it anyway. They’re so alone in their field that they’re extremely powerful and no nonsense. For instance, I’m talking about women filmmakers like Kirsten Tan6 in Singapore or Anocha Mai (Anocha Suwichakornpong)7 in Thailand – no one can tell them what they’re going to do. At this point, because we’ve all made our films and because everyone’s realised that nothing they say can make us back down, no one tries anymore. It’s not like in the States or Australia where people still try to take women down.
I find that South East Asian women who direct get along really well – not just because we’re from a group of very few female filmmakers but also just because South East Asians are really learning how to find ourselves in an ASEAN family. ASEAN is a pretty recent thing, and now that it is a thing and we’re all getting together at film festivals or other events that bring all these South East Asian countries together, we’re learning how similar we are in our culture and in our environment; also in how we have to work and approach story and content. So I think it’s been really great that we have this group of women that we get along. We like each other, we support each other and it’s not like the environment that I talked about years ago when we just felt threatened.
I look at the women in California and I’m intimidated at the way they have to market themselves. They don’t just have to sell their talent. There are the women who, like Kathryn Bigelow and Patty Jenkins, are just talented. But then there are the indie-level women like myself – these non-famous women who have to sell themselves on a personality level, on a sexual level – where it’s not just talking about your film projects but it’s taking a lot of selfies of yourself all dolled up and having to curate some kind of fan base. That’s what Los Angeles looks like to me and that’s scary. At least, in South East Asia, I just have to make some fucking films and people will be OK with it. I feel like these women in America have so much more to juggle.
Your films have a domestic focus. Has that just been due to the economics of the filmmaking? It does make it feel as though the women are caged or fortressed…
It’s economics. It’s what i can do right now. But that’s also how I feel women feel here. I do think that a lot of women feel a bit contained. I’m not saying that because they’re women but just by society pressure and family pressure, and that’s why I wanted to make a trilogy about women here. First was Chanthaly with the young woman and her place in her family. Then Dearest Sister is about two young women and their place in the society. Eventually, I’d like to make a film about a young Lao woman and her place internationally. I have this trafficking story. It’s not really trafficking – it’s hard to describe – but it’s someone who goes to work abroad and gets into situations from not being able speak the language and not knowing the laws of the land.
One of the first lines of dialogue from the Estonian character of Jacob (Tambit Tuisk) in Dearest Sister is “It’s a goddamn lottery”, which sets up the theme of numbers right from the start of the film. Does this have some sort of cultural relevancy in Laos?
It’s extremely relevant in Laos. The numbers thing is extremely prevalent here. People believe that spirits can visit you in a vision or send you symbolic messages through hauntings and visions to give you numbers. It’s also a belief in Thailand, The Phillipines and Singapore as well, which I didn’t know before. One of the reasons I wanted to put that in [the film], though, was because it’s extremely Lao and it’s extremely weird so I knew it would stand out. But I’ve had a bit of backlash for it. A lot of western people say, “Oh, that number thing is so ludicrous – why would you put that in there? Like, why would you make up that ridiculous convention?” Really, I get that a lot. You can see some of the reviews on AMC or Shudder or whatever. When I explain it’s a real thing, they want to know why I don’t explain it but I don’t think I should have to explain things. It seems juvenile to take the audience by the hand and guide them through it – “Let me introduce you to Laos and we have this lottery and number thing, blah, blah, blah.” Nobody fucking asked you to explain Santa Claus to us! We don’t celebrate Christmas here but we’ve worked out why there’s a big fat guy in a red suit sliding down people’s fucking chimneys, right? Nobody explains Christmas but we still watch the movies anyway. Why can’t it be the other way around?
We gratefully acknowledge the work of Faith Everard who transcribed this interview.
- Cooper and Schoedsack shot their 60-minute staged ‘documentary’, Chang: A Drama of the Wildnerness in the jungles of Laos (then called Lan Xang) and Thailand (then Siam) using local villagers and wild animals. This film was produced eight years before Cooper and Schoedsack’s famous giant ape film, King Kong (1933). Chang screened recently at the Luang Prabang Film Festival in Laos. ↩
- Sharon Crowther, “Learn About the Amazing Movie from Laos That Spawned King Kong,” Culture Trip 3 June 2017 https://theculturetrip.com/asia/laos/articles/learn-about-the-amazing-movie-from-laos-that-spawned-king-kong/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- In 2012, the Luang Prabang Film Festival screened five films from Laos: http://style.time.com/2012/11/29/a-town-without-a-cinema-where-better-for-a-film-festival/. This film festival takes place annually at the UNESCO-heritage town on the Mekong River where there are no cinemas – all the films are screened on the walls of buildings and other public edifices. ↩
- Patrick Frater, “Laos Selects ‘Dearest Sister’ as First Foreign-Language Oscar Submission”, Variety 18 September 2017 variety.com/2017/film/asia/laos-dearest-sister-first-foreign-language-oscar-film-1202563352/ ↩
- Kirsten Tan wrote and directed Pop Aye (2017). ↩
- Anocha Suwichakornpong wrote and directed Mundane History (2009), By the Time It Gets Dark (2016) and the omnibus feature with filmmakers Kaz Cai and Wang Ji, Breakfast Lunch Dinner (2010). ↩