Folklore and history combine to chilling effect in this atmospheric horror from The Philippines

In My Mother's Skin

Source: Courtesy of The Sundance Institute

’In My Mother’s Skin;

Dir/scr. Kenneth Dagatan. The Philippines/Singapore/Taiwan. 2023. 97mins

A well-executed, unusual and historically-tinged horror from The Philippines, In My Mother’s Skin will achieve two things. The first is to give jaded genre fans an unknown – and pretty nasty – Asian fairy-story drenched in the atmosphere of Second World War colonial dread. The second is to elevate writer-director Kenneth Dagatan (who already impressed in this arena with Ma) onto studio wish-lists. Not only can he pull together a genre film which might also appeal to the arthouse, he has also drawn an impressive performance from his chid lead Felicity Kyle Napuli. No wonder Amazon has swooped. 

A well-executed, unusual and historically-tinged horror

Not that In My Mother’s Skin is a simple, or perfect, proposition. Dagatan tries to stitch his malevolent folkloric fairy to the distant battle drum of war, when Filipinos barter their consciences to survive the occupying forces. As the Japanese and American armies fight each other in the booming distance, it’s every man for himself – and Dagatan’s fairy feasts on the fall-out. Sometimes the seams on this cloth can show — there’s a circularity to the narrative that can feel strained, and, essentially, it’s a chamber piece. That ambition, though, and the channelling of Del Toro in particular, extends all the way to effects (particularly the sound mix by Eddie Huang and Chen Yi Ling), and marks In My Mother’s Skin out for attention.

The setting for Dagatan’s film is essentially a haunted forest which surrounds a seen-better-days colonial house, with its genteely-starving family of four and their last loyal servant who polishes the wooden floors and a teak altar to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (The family prays to it in the language of a previous coloniser, the Spanish, while the rest of the film is spoken in Tagalog.) Outside the house, and beyond the locked gate, lurks a seemingly friendly fairy who takes human form in a shape not entirely dissimilar to the Virgin Mary. She sees the decay inside – the turncoat father, the sickly mother – and readies her trap for the family’s pre-teen girl.

Although she may feel like many forest-dwelling evils of old, this fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) has a very local vernacular — giant cicadas who burrow into her prey when invited and, through a not-very-clear genre mechanism, force the host to cannibalistically feast on human flesh in order to disgorge a black bird through the mouth. No need to sweat the details though: it’s all bad, as young Tala (Kyle Napuli) discovers when she tries to prolong her mother’s life by magical means. And Dagatan isn’t about to spare anybody, least of all her doe-eyed younger brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), from the bloody fury. 

Dagatan uses this framework to ladle on oozing imagery of tropical forests, Hansel & Gretel huts of rattan and banana leaves, canopies of vines which hide peeling religious statuary: he shades his piece in the sickly ink of moonlit blood before switching to the full colour of midday heat as the cicadas sing the soundtrack. He’s talking about his country’s murky history of suppression, with a palette to match. The fairy may be its atavistic soul or a warning to invaders – the jungle literally laughs at the futility of it all.

Smartly, Dagatan leaves his film open for a sequel. And in young Felicity Kyle Napuli, who carries the film on her young shoulders, he has found someone audiences will want to walk in the forest again with. Plus, there’s a poster for In My Mother’s Skin that’s unlikely to be bettered at Sundance, where it premieres in the midnight section. That’s marketing sorted, at the very least.

Production companies: Epicmedia, Zhao Wei Films, Volos Films, Clover Films

Worldwide distribution: Amazon

Producers: Bradley Lieu, Huang Junxiang, Bianca Balbuena. Stefano Centini

Cinematography: Russell Morton

Production design: Benjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije 

Editing: Kao Ming-cheng

Music: Sing Wu

Main cast: Beauty Gonzalez, Felicity Kyle Napuli, James Mavie Estrella, Jasmine Curtis-Smith