Who does a child run to when the monster under the bed is their mother? Kenneth Dagatan‘s second feature is a grim fairy tale anchored in real horrors, and yet another film at this year’s Sundance that centres on the bond between child and parent. Its elements may sound very familiar; a strident young heroine, a sick mother, true historical conflict, and a supernatural guardian of ambiguous benevolence, but there’s a dark artistry and striking visual sense that gives In My Mother’s Skin its own identity, even if its storytelling is a little sluggish.
At the end of the Second World War, the Philippines are still occupied by Japanese forces. Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) is the daughter of a merchant who has been accused of stealing gold from the invaders. After he is taken away to plead his case, Tala is left to try and find food for her younger brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), and consumptive mother Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez). When foraging turns up nothing but rotten fruit and bloated corpses, the girl happens upon a fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who offers an insect that will cure her Ligaya. A dire warning comes with it, but Tala is desperate for her mother to be well again, and there’s a great table of fruit there to sweeten the deal.
Of course, the price is too high. Before long, Ligaya has a sickening bulging lump at the nape of her neck, and has become a scuttling, chittering, insectile thing that is an even greater threat to the family than hunger or the point of a Japanese bayonet. When deprived of her need for human flesh the thing that was mummy gnaws at her own arm and vomits up a small bird. It’s a fate worse than death and Tala realises she should have been more careful about what she wished for.
A tale etched from the horror that lurks in most folklore, In My Mother’s Skin is bleaker than most, and goes further into the darkness than its most obvious point of reference, Pan’s Labyrinth. While having its distinct flavour linked to Philippines wartime history and the country’s mythology, it also draws on western fairy tales, gothic traditions, and the visual flourishes of J-horror to create something of a striking chimera. Its colour palette is crepuscular but crisp, bringing the fairy’s opulent costume into evanescent relief. The sound design is an entomophobe’s worst nightmare, and the inevitable violence is orchestrated to highlight shocking aftermath, leaving some indelibly horrid images. And in its Mephistophelian fairy, a potent metaphor for the failure of the existing social order and organised religion.
The symbolism of the fairy’s lair is striking. A simulacra of church contained within a tree, wreathed with foliage. The stained glass exalting the fairy queen instead of any martyr, and the altar laden with nature’s bounty. To young Tala the message is clear: ‘Your beliefs have failed. The Catholic church has failed you. Your god has failed you.’ It’s arguable that she’s so clearly a villain – with Curtis-Smith’s beatific serenity containing an obvious bladed malevolence – that it makes Tala’s decision making irrevocably stupid. A little more ambivalence would have been preferable, but the point is that Tala feels she really has no choice. It makes it a little less satisfying in terms of its storytelling perhaps, but its not in any way a case of a character making a dumb choice slasher-style just to further the plot.
Besides, there are more obvious issues. In My Mother’s Skin is very deliberately paced. Nothing wrong with that, but a lot of tension is left to dissipate between the impressively staged horror. And the significance of the regurgitated birds remains a mystery. A slightly tighter editorial hand could have shaved away some of the ephemeral moments of mood that add nothing narratively, as otherwise Dagatan has all the tools in his arsenal to make something brilliant. Perhaps next time.
Screening at Sundance Festival 2023