If there were ever a runoff to determine the First Lady of Horror, Mattie Do would have to be one of the top contenders. She’s already won the title in her home country—literally. Simply put, before Do turned up on the Lao film scene, there were neither female film directors nor horror films. Although Laos had a cinematic history prior to the 1970s, the country’s regime change resulted in the destruction of its movie theaters; with no place to be shown, film reels were discarded or forgotten, deteriorating through lack of care.
During the ensuing years, the country would produce only one film— Som Ock Southiphonh’s 1988 experimental docu-drama Red Lotus (an earlier production, Gun Voice from the Plain of Jars, an army movie produced in 1983, didn’t pass the censors and never saw the light of day). It wasn’t until 2000 that aspiring director Anousone Sirisackda decided his country needed to reclaim its place in the Asian filmmaking scene and opened Laos’ first non-government film studio since the 1970s, Lao Art Media; the country’s first commercial feature since the revolution, the rom-com Good Morning, Luang Prabang, premiered in 2008 to what was then the country’s sole movie theater.
Enter Mattie Do.
Born and raised in California by parents who had fled the revolution, she arrived in Laos in 2010 to care for her elderly father, who had repatriated to his home country in the wake of a relaxing socio-political climate. Recalling the American horror films she’d grown up watching with her father in the states, and surveying her ancestral homeland’s dearth of its own cinematic heritage, she set out to do what then seemed like the unthinkable: if there wasn’t a horror scene in Laos already, she’d make one.
Displaying both a sharp business sensibility and keen cinematic eye, Do navigated the often tumultuous world of the nascent Lao film industry to produce and direct 2012’s Chantaly. A domestic ghost story shot entirely in Do’s home in Vientiane, the film became one of the darlings of 2013’s Fantastic Fest and netted Do an international reputation as a horror pioneer. Not content to rest on those laurels, Do upped the ante with Dearest Sister, a family tragedy set against the backdrop of Laos’ lottery culture about a woman who exploits her cousin’s visions of the dead to strike it rich. Moving beyond the confines of a single home and into the lush, verdant streets and landscapes of Laos, Sister not only showed off the beauty of Do’s home country but her true talents as a director, presenting audiences with a leisurely paced, almost hypnotic first half before taking an abrupt turn into the mordant. Not only did the film repeat its’ predecessor’s success at Fantastic Fest, but it’s now earned the distinction of being the first Lao film to be submitted to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Yes—in the space of seven years, Do has gone from an up-and-comer to getting a horror movie in the running for an Academy Award. If that isn’t cred, I don’t know what is.
As of this writing, Do is still touring Dearest Sister to film festivals while also planning her next feature, a sci-fi thriller called The Long Walk, due to enter production in 2018. She was kind enough to take a break from her (insanely) busy schedule to sit down with Heard Tell for our #horrorandme series, discussing what she loves about the genre, and what’s gone into helping craft an entire nation’s horror culture.
Preston Fassel: What role has horror played in your life? What attracted you to it?
Mattie Do: Horror is probably a part of everyone’s life at some point, and I think it’s a question that is surprisingly a lot deeper and more personal than we’d expect. I mean, for myself, my family decided to leave their home country during a moment of civil unrest, were in a refugee camp for years, and then had to adjust to an entirely new immigrant life in the States— a super foreign environment for them. When I hear those stories, I think it’s pretty horrific to have gone through it, but watching horror movies with my dad seemed to be one of these weirdly fun reprieves. I know that sounds sick, but at the same time, it was like, “Yeah, we had hard times, but man, it’s not as bad as a puppet with a drill head coming to life and drilling us to death.” Hahaha! I’m not saying we reveled in the characters’ misery, but it was nice to know that the terrifying thing happening on screen wasn’t real. I grew up watching inappropriate films for my age because of that, plus I think my immigrant dad didn’t exactly get that the ratings were more than just a suggestion.
PF: Why do you think horror resonates with people the way it does?
MD: I think horror allows people to enter a realm where reality isn’t necessarily the most reliable or truthful existence. Horror can be whimsical, fun, and also magical, but at the same time it can be so visceral and real – it kinda fucks up the audience, y’know? People all know what it’s like to be terrified, they might not even know what it’s like to be in love or to have a sense of humor, but being scared… well, everyone has experienced that at some point in their lives, so of course I think it resonates well! Personally, I think if films are meant to be a ride, then horror is that awesomely thrilling and terrifying— but at the end of the day fun— rollercoaster the brave folk choose to go on! That’s exactly why I love horror and why I chose horror as the definite genre I wanted to work in when I became a director.
PF: Why is horror a genre that you keep going back to?
MD: I was super attracted to horror just because I loved the genre, the different stories I could tell in it without feeling like I had to be locked down in some sort of formula, and also, because I could tell my strange and foreign stories and have an audience already pre-disposed to watching it! When I meet horror audiences, I find that the films they watch are so diverse in comparison to regular filmgoers. It’s really refreshing.
PF: You’ve spoken in past interviews about Lao horror culture being largely influenced by Thai and other Asian country’s horror lore, and your wanting to give Laos its own unique horror identity. Why has it taken so long for the country to develop its own unique horror culture, and how do you hope to help that process along?
MD: I mean, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia share a lot of similar folklore. It’s like, we have witches in the States and also witches in Africa, they’re similar yet different. In Laos and Thailand, a lot of our folklore is actually the same, but the context of how and where the stories are taking place should be uniquely ours. Even though every country has a vampire story where they’re afraid of the sun, drink blood, and etc., doesn’t mean all vampire stories need to be told in a typical Anglo context. Take Let the Right One In for example… it’s a beautiful vampire story, has all the elements of the vampire as we know and love, but is so Swedish. Of course, I want to do something that’s so Lao and isn’t trying to imitate Thailand or anyone else for that matter. Sadly, I think that the reason why it’s taken so long for us to get there is simply by virtue of the fact that we haven’t had many films to begin with. After the regime change in the 70’s, we had no films for quite a while. We had one outlier arthouse film in the late 80s, and then it wasn’t until probably the 2000’s that we even had another commercial film… it was a romance. Dearest Sister was only the 13th film in the country, so if you consider that we’ve had so few films, it makes sense that the filmmakers here would be starting from a point that’s familiar to them – and that happens to be the films of their neighboring country, which shares a similar culture and a similar language. I actually love Thai films too, but that’s what they are, they’re Thai, they aren’t Lao or Cambodian or Vietnamese, so yeah… I wanna see every country being able to showcase their work individually and uniquely! The same could be said about every country I think. I watched a superhero film from Italy called They Call Me Jeeg Robot and it was spectacularly Italian! It would be so easy to fall into the “superhero tropes” and try to imitate the popular American superhero movies, but they didn’t, and it was so cool and different, but felt so immensely Italian. I loved it.
PF: Anything you’d like to add about your upcoming film?
MD: My next film is going to be so fuckin’ weird! Haha! I want it to blur the genres of sci-fi, thriller, and supernatural, and I want it to be gorgeous and totally different from anything we’ve seen. I’m trying really hard right now in the lead up to it to challenge myself and change the way I would normally approach the material, the camera and shots, and also making minimal feel totally maximal. Haha, does that even make sense? I dunno. It’s a time travel film that takes place in an isolated jungle village of rural Laos… in the year 2065. That’s basically my new film, The Long Walk, in a nutshell.
Dearest Sister is currently available for streaming via Shudder!
This article is part of our special October series, #horrorandme