Sundance 2023 Review: IN MY MOTHER'S SKIN, Filipino Folk Horror Enthralls and Disturbs in Equal Measure
The 400-year-old spectre of imperialism, colonialism, and occupation (Spanish, American, and Japanese) hovers above Filipino filmmaker Kenneth Dagatan's (Ma) second, feature-length film, In My Mother’s Skin.
Set during the waning days of World War II, with the Japanese army in permanent retreat due to a temporary American-Filipino alliance, In My Mother’s Skin excavates historical horrors both natural (wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese) and supernatural ones (the centuries-old conflict between non-Christian and Christian faiths) to unforgettable, gripping, mesmerizing effect.
In My Mother’s Skin centers on a once-wealthy Filipino family. The war and occupation of the Philippines have taken a toll on the family’s finances. While the family still lives in a spacious, opulent mansion away located in a sparsely populated area, the war isn’t far away.
A Filipino collaborator, Antonio (Ronnie Lazaro), arrives at the mansion, menacing Japanese soldiers in tow, claiming to want nothing more than a little hospitality, companionship, and a shared meal. Instead, he’s there to extricate the whereabouts of stolen Japanese gold from the family patriarch, Romoaldo (Arnold Reyes).
The patriarch soundly rejects Antonio’s claims, but a pregnant pause in his voice suggests otherwise. Once Antonio exits the mansion, promising to return a short time later, Romoaldo also decides to leave, hoping to enlist the help of the Americans advancing on the Philippines and thus saving his family.
Romoaldo’s departure, however, leaves his sickly wife, Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez), and their two children, Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), to essentially fend for their own, including scouting for and finding food in the forest that surrounds their property.
It’s there that In My Mother’s Skin takes a decided left turn into folk horror and indigenous fairy tales as Tala and Bayani, encountering a free-standing structure in the forest, make a fateful, potentially fatal decision: They enter the stained-glass and vine-filled structure. A malevolent fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), answers their plea for help, offering food to temporarily satisfy their hunger and, more importantly for the remainder of the film, a sweet-looking fruit that the fairy promises will cure Ligaya of her unspecified illness.
That it does isn’t a surprise, but like all fairy tales the world over, Tala soon discovers that a bargain struck with a duplicitous fairy will result in grave consequences for herself and her family. In a series of grueling, discomfiting encounters between Tala and her mother, Tala quickly learns that the dangers posed by Antonio and the Japanese soldiers are secondary to the dangers represented by her newly transformed mother and the fairy herself.
Grim, bleak, and borderline nihilistic, In My Mother’s Skin devolves into a gory, bloody third act that will test both the stomachs and the patience of even the most resilient horror fans on the other side of the screen. In My Mother’s Skin becomes something of an endurance contest as Dagatan rains all manner of disturbingly realistic tribulations on Tala and her family, not because he’s inherently sadistic or sadomasochistic, but because at least in this story, he sees no other alternative. Death and dismemberment (not necessarily in that order) come to the undeserving and deserving alike.
Dagatan also contrasts the pious Christian family we meet in the first scenes and their attempts to ward off the war’s effects and Ligaya through intense, if ultimately meaningless, prayer with Tala’s desperate decision to embrace a pre-Christian deity and the cruel, arbitrary set of beliefs she represents. Neither, it turns out, give Tala what she needs or wants. Both, in turn and in time, fail her.
Dagatan attempts to counter that bleakness in the final moments with an ambitious, open-ended denouement, but by then, it’s almost too late. He’s been far too effective at depicting the real and imagined horrors of war.
In My Mother’s Skin premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released on Prime Video later this year.
In My Mother's Skin
- Kenneth Dagatan
- Kenneth Dagatan
- Beauty Gonzalez
- Angeli Bayani
- Jasmine Curtis-Smith