Hello there! My name is Mattie Do and I'm Laos' first horror film director, and yeah, I’m also Laos’ first – and only – female director. Crazy, right? I've been living in the Lao capital, Vientiane, for the last five years, and I've been right in the middle of the birth of modern Lao cinema.
I’m getting ready to shoot my second feature film, ນ້ອງຮັກ (Nong Hak), or in English, DEAREST SISTER, this fall on location in Vientiane and out in the jungles in the surrounding province. Hopefully, I’ll get through this film without any dengue fever outbreaks... Yeah, last film? That happened.
If I'm counting right, Nong Hak, will be ONLY the 13th Lao feature film. AND it will be one of the most ambitious films ever produced in Laos.
Nong Hak is the story of a Lao village girl, whose only chance of escaping indentured poverty is to manipulate her wealthy cousin’s illness into dependence. Oh, and it’s got ghosts, too.
Yep. Sure enough.
Two years ago, I shot my first film, Chanthaly, in my house with my dog and a couple actors for just under US$5,000. Chanthaly became the first Lao film to screen in major festivals outside of Southeast Asia. I had my American premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX. After that, the film screened all over the world.
The screenings were a HUGE success. Don’t believe me, check this out...
[Chanthaly succeeds] as a ghost story that refuses to conform to the rules of neighbouring industries in Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan or anywhere else. It is no small achievement that Chanthaly exists at all, and worthy of genuine praise and attention for proving such an engaging and unsettling piece of work. – James Marsh, Twitchfilm.com
Oh, and even better! This year, I was one of only ten directors selected to present my new film in the World Cinema Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Institut Français' Fabrique des Cinemas du Monde. I’m not sure what this means, exactly, but hey, I’m in Cannes figuring it out!
It’s strange being out in the world with my film, because back home in Laos, the industry is so small... Right now there are only four working Lao film directors. That’s right. ONLY FOUR. There’s the comedy guy, the thriller guy, the romantic drama guy and me. I'm the crazy horror chick that's calculating how much pig blood I can buy for the cash I've got in my pocket.
So what if I told you that the film was based on a true story? Well, that’s not 100% true, I pieced Nong Hak together from three or four true stories.
When I was a kid, I heard the old Lao folk talking about dreams of snake or monkey attacks, and somehow that translated into lottery numbers. More commonly, there were the visitations... that's right. Straight up hauntings. Dead Lao relatives frequently make one last visit from the other side to drop winning lottery numbers on their friends and families.
Nong Hak tells the story of a village girl from southern Laos who travels to Vientiane to care for her rich cousin who has mysteriously lost her sight, and somehow gained the ability to communicate with the dead. When the poor girl realizes that her cousin is receiving messages from the spirits that allow her to win the lottery, she has to choose between nursing her cousin back to health or keeping sick in order to get rich herself.
If you’ll allow me a moment of seriousness, Nong Hak really represents an evolution in the maturity of Lao filmmaking. Just as Chanthaly examined Lao familial patriarchy and the place of women in the family unit, Nong Hak takes that analysis out of the family and looks at women’s roles in Lao class hierarchies. The film looks at interracial marriage – between a western man and Lao girl – in a way that’s never been done, or allowed by local censorship.
Making a horror movie here is a tricky proposition.
You've probably never seen a Lao film before. But that's not your fault.
The thing is, since the communist revolution in 1975, Laos has only produced about a dozen feature films. All but one or two of those films were produced in the last few years. We have one cinema here in the capital, with two rickety 35mm projectors, that just shows whatever film prints sneak across the Thai border.
When I finished rendering Chanthaly on my 2008 Macbook, I burned a Blu-ray and loaded my production company's DLP projector into the backseat of my hatchback. Then I paid a guy at the cinema to start and stop that Blu-ray five times a day for two weeks.
And that is how you distribute a film in Laos.
Lao cinema has just started. And because of that, every Lao film is a historic event. Every film made here breaks ground in a totally new film industry.
Well, the budget’s actually $45,000. But I’ve already raised the first $15,000 locally. Just so you don’t think I’ve been slacking off.
Here’s the thing: $15K is a healthy film budget in Laos. I can already afford 30 shooting days, I can pay my cast and crew a little bit, and I can shoot the film, like the last one, on my Canon 550D.
But I can’t afford my special effects. And I can’t rent the house I need for my location, and I can’t repaint the walls after they get bloody. And I really want to splash some blood around this time.
Since the Lao film industry is so small, we don’t have a proper gear rental house. Almost everything I need has to come from Bangkok. On Chanthaly, we blew a couple bulbs and had to shoot two weeks with just a pair of 500w lamps while the replacements were shipped up to Laos.
So your $30,000 will make all of this possible:
- Upgrade my dying Canon 550D to a Black Magic Cinema Camera.
- Better locations, MORE BLOOD!
- I can shoot my special effects sequences – all practical, no CGI – instead of shooting around them. MORE BLOOD!
- Professional color correction and sound mix.
Believe me, I know how to stretch a buck. And I know how to scrap together a quality film for much less than you might think possible.
More than anything, I want to share this experience with you. I work with a small but tremendously creative group of filmmakers that, with each little feature film, are defining what Lao film is for the very first time. It’s so cool.
There really aren’t many film markets left where the entire industry operates on a first-name basis. And Laos is developing quickly. In a couple of years, even Laos won’t be like this anymore.
We’ll grow up and the scrappy adolescence of Lao film will be over.
Let me show you something...
Those are photographs of the first public screening of Chanthaly at the Luang Prabang Film Festival. That's the first time a Lao audience saw a horror film in their own language. THE FIRST TIME. Seriously, how cool is that?
I've put together a bunch of perks that will really connect you to the making of Nong Hak during the most exciting period of Lao filmmaking.
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