By Sonia Lupher
Lao filmmaker Mattie Do’s work is deeply concerned with examining the place of people, particularly women, in their socio-cultural environment. Perhaps this stems from Do’s conscious awareness, since childhood, of her own place in the world and the transnational perspective that comes with it. She was born in Los Angeles, California, where she grew up on a steady diet of ballet, ‘80s horror, action films, and Vietnamese food (her mother was Lao, her father is Vietnamese but was raised in Laos; both emigrated to the United States around 1975, at the close of the Laotian Civil War). In 2010, Do and her father returned to Vientiane with her husband, screenwriter Christopher Larsen, where she began to work in filmmaking and directed her first feature, Chanthaly (2012), (streaming on YouTube) followed by Dearest Sister (2016) (streaming on Shudder), which was Laos’ submission to the Oscars last year. She was initially drawn to horror as a child when, as she recalls, her father would take her and her brother to the video rental store every weekend and let them pick out a movie of their choice. They always picked a horror movie even though they scared her, because “the horror movies always had the best cover,”  and so she would watch the Nightmare on Elm Street and Puppet Master movies cowering behind her fingers.
Before turning to filmmaking, Do pursued a variety of interests. She is a skilled makeup and hair artist, and, after training as a ballet dancer since childhood, eventually turned to teaching it. Ballet proved another avenue that inspired Do’s eventual transition into horror filmmaking: “Ballet is pure genre … [Le Corsaire, Giselle, and Swan Lake] are basically horror stories.” When she and her husband relocated to Vientiane and Do began to consider directing a film, her husband showed her how to analyze and dissect her favorite titles—which include Black Swan (2010) and Ratatouille (2007)—in order to understand how they worked. Ballet also played a role in her indoctrination to filmmaking; the story of Chanthaly is based on the ballet Giselle, while Do’s attention to movement and emotional expression come through in the subtle gestures of her actors, particularly visible in the impressive performance by Amphaiphun Phommapunya, who also stars in Do’s sophomore feature. Do and her husband, who is her screenwriter, designed Dearest Sister loosely around the ballet La Bayadère, even as she thinks of this film as her transition out of ballet and into filmmaking proper.
As a female Lao filmmaker (currently the only one) living and working in Vientiane, Do is keenly aware of her unique position. Lao film production has historically been infrequent and propagandistic; only since 2008 has there existed a veritable and growing Lao film industry. Most of the media content available in Laos is imported from Thailand, and Do was distressed to see that Lao media gleaned its style and content from its neighbor: “I thought it was a little weird and unfair, because we have awesome stories of our own.” She was also chagrined by the appearance of “Asian horror,” of dark, shadowy imagery with blue undertones. Therefore, Do sets out to reflect the warm, lush colors she associates with Laos. As she says in an interview for Women and Hollywood, “I have the fortunate position to give the world an insider look at Laos’ stories and culture, but also what happens behind closed doors.”  Scholar Panivong Norindr names just two filmmakers responsible for launching contemporary Lao cinema—Anysay Keola and Do herself—and Do takes seriously the responsibility to do her home country justice while experimenting creatively.  The Laos creative film industry has grown significantly in recent years, and Do’s contribution plays a large role. 
Developing two features in a country with no film industry was a challenge for Do, but because she had no formal training, she was better able to adapt to the constraints.  She made Dearest Sister through crowdfunding and the aid of the French and Estonian film industries. What makes her films particularly unique is her development of what she calls Lao style, a way of using cinematic language to faithfully represent Lao people and push against the formal stiltedness of most Lao media output. Much of this intended to counter the ways Asian people have been represented onscreen. “No Southeast Asian person in the world sits there stiffly in a wide shot for like five minutes, with this one thousand yard stare, being mystic-Oriental-pensive. They’re bawdy, they’re yelling at each other from across the room, they’re celebrating, laughing, they’re joyous, they’re getting drunk, they’re fighting and that’s what I want to show.” Their storytelling comes through when chatting among friends, and many of the legends specific to Laos appear in her films—“How has no one made a movie about lottery ghost before?” So she did, in Dearest Sister.
Both films are light on dialogue and heavy on subtext; Do’s protagonists are sullen and taciturn and their motives emerge through their body language, which Do argues is unusual for Southeast Asian films in which characters usually say what they’re thinking. Do’s storytelling method often prefers silence over dialogue, and when her characters do converse, it is in a roundabout, evasive way. Above all, Do is concerned with making her characters realistic and multifaceted, rather than the subservient and meek stereotypes of Asian women. Even so, she is not afraid to explore her characters’ flaws and the poor decisions they make for themselves and one another. In Dearest Sister, Nok and Ana’s relationship is marred by betrayal, deceit, and violence. As she explains in an interview, Do’s experience of growing up with ballet and in a refugee environment made her feel “like I always had to fight against women … because there was this world of one-upmanship and jealousy, and just trying to get ahead.”  Though she sees more empowerment among women now across the board, troubled aspects of female relationships remain central to her portrayal of characters.
Chanthaly and Dearest Sister are the first two volumes in a loose trilogy about Lao women, and Do is working on developing the third volume. Chanthaly examined the role of Lao women in their family, Dearest Sister examined their place in Lao society, and the third film will take place in Paris, France, and thereby look at Lao women in an international setting. Do is particularly eager to portray the protagonist as an educated and multilingual woman who must deal with daily racism and the assumption that she is uneducated and of lesser means. “We’re going to make her a strong, educated, independent woman and throw her into Paris and just see the obstacles that she has to face as a woman of color.”
Making horror films came naturally to Do because of her upbringing and background in ballet, but the genre is further attractive to her because of its international appeal. She finds that other genres, particularly comedy and drama, are difficult to translate culturally. Though she has had mixed reactions to Dearest Sister—from unfazed younger audiences and shocked older audiences in Laos to enthusiastic horror fans around the world—she does not have to worry about cultural barriers when it comes to her genre of choice. Even when audiences dislike the film, they understand what she is doing. “Everybody gets fear. Everybody knows what it’s like to have to hold your breath and not make a sound or the murderer is going to find you and kill you. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel something is creeping around at night and watching you and moving things in the dark. Horror is naturally what I gravitate towards because it’s something everyone can understand.” Do’s nuanced storytelling proves her point.
1. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes are taken from an interview with Mattie Do conducted by the author on June 13, 2018.
3. Panivong Norindr, "The Future of Lao Cinema: The New Wave," Visual Anthropology, vol. 31, issue 1-2, pp. 14-33.
4. Emma Westwood, " 'Women's Stories Aren't Told In Laos': An Interview With Mattie Do," Senses of Cinema, Issue 85, December 2017.
5. Nathan Mattise, "Mattie Do, Laos' Sole Female Director, Scares Up Attention With Dearest Sister," Wired, 3 November 2016.
6. Emma Westwood, " 'Women's Stories Aren't Told In Laos': An Interview With Mattie Do," Senses of Cinema, Issue 85, December 2017.
Sonia Lupher is a PhD candidate in Film and Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is working on a dissertation about contemporary women's cinema and genre, with particular attention to horror and women in horror film production. Find her on Twitter @SoniaLupher.
Additional Resources on Mattie Do
Bibliography of Further Reading
Dass, William. "The Rise of Lao Horror With Director Mattie Do," Film School Rejects, 14 March 2017.
Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. "SPOTLIGHT January 2018: Mattie Do, Lao Filmmaker, Oscar Contender for Dearest Sister," Alliance of Women Film Journalists, 31 December 2017.
Heskins, Andrew. "Mattie Do interview: 'I’m an accidental filmmaker!', " Eastern Kicks.
Yap, Audrey Cleo. "Laos' First Female Filmmaker Is Putting What's 'Behind the Closed Doors' On Screen," NBC News, 18 November 2016.
Bor Mi Vanh Chark (pre-production), director, producer
Dearest Sister, 2016, director, producer
River, 2015, producer
Chanthaly, 2012, director, producer
Douangmany Soliphanh (actor and producer, Chanthaly and Dearest Sister)
Christopher Larsen (writer, Chanthaly and Dearest Sister)
Amphaiphun Phommapunya (actress, Chanthaly and Dearest Sister)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.