Movie Review
In My Mother’s Skin
Directed by Kenneth Dagatan
Amazon Prime Video

By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

FOR Filipinos seeking out unique depictions of their nation’s wartime gloom and doom (and subsequent navigation of it all), there is a notable pantheon of works.

There’s Oro, Plata Mata (Gold, Silver, Death) from 1982, written by Jose Javier Reyes and directed by Peque Gallaga, set in World War II in the island of Negros, where haciendero families descend into misfortune and violence.

There’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) from 1976, written and directed by Mario O’Hara, also set in WWII but in Laguna, where a teacher and a soldier’s romance is shattered by the arrival of the Japanese.

In My Mother’s Skin, directed by Kenneth Dagatan, premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival in the US, and it continues the age-old sentiments of the two, established films before it.

The same time period, a similar provincial setting, with more harrowing insights about the consequences of colonial suffering on the Filipino identity — but what sets it apart is that it basks in wartime dread as an atmospheric folk horror, experienced by a child who must learn to protect herself against false hope.

Dagatan’s film follows Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), a young teen desperate to cure her dying mother, Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez), while her father has had to leave to escape accusations of stealing Japanese gold. Between her frail mother and her naive younger brother, Tala takes it upon herself to find food and medicines as the war keeps them starving, helpless, and isolated in their provincial estate.

In her journey into the jungle, she encounters a mysterious diwata or Philippine “fairy” (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who offers her assistance. The understandable decision to trust this being, when no other alternatives exist at the moment, quickly becomes the downfall of her family.

Based on this summary, one would expect something akin to Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, which also sets a young girl on the dark side of folklore during a historically pivotal war.

However, this fairy tale is far more cruel and bloody.

Gonzalez as Ligaya is equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying as she is first weakened by a fatal illness and later possessed, gradually contorted by a parasitic, flesh-eating force. Curtis-Smith inhabits her breathtaking Santo Niño-inspired diwata garb with an eerie calm, appearing and sounding both inviting yet menacing.

Napuli as Tala is the revelation of this film, this being her first movie role coming from theater. She delivers an impressive characterization of a teenager becoming brave enough to fend for herself and her family — albeit in the worst of times, where humans both, Filipino and foreign, and creatures, seek to take advantage of their desperation. As the film goes on its blood-soaked path, she embodies the role of one so young and confused by all the terrors that beat her down, again and again.

Elevating the slow-burn frights presented by Dagatan (known for his 2015 horror short Sanctissima and his 2019 supernatural horror feature Ma) are the fascinating visuals and sound design.

Originally from Cebu and mindful of the quality of regional perspectives, it’s no surprise that his films are all drenched in the lush untamed atmosphere only found in a rural Philippine setting. Eddie Huang and Yi Ling Chen’s fantastic sound design permeates in this regard, making use of the sound of cicadas and the rustling through leaves in admirably frightening ways and conveys the heightened feeling of being trapped in a tropical environment.

The fascinating visuals are filled with religious iconography: the Catholic statues that the family pray to every day, and the diwata’s beautiful costume patterned after the iconic Santo Niño’s. Benjamin Padero’s production design provides us these images as haunting reminders of the tragic Filipino tendency towards false hope and misplaced faith, being an aggressively religious country, in keeping with how Tala falls for the diwata’s schemes.

As an atmospheric horror, In My Mother’s Skin delivers scares that are subtle yet effective, with steady narrative pacing and sometimes lacking pay-offs that only serve the dread of it all.

Coming from Sundance to a streaming platform like Amazon Prime Video (globally, might I add!) may be an unusual journey for such a singular type of film, but hopefully it finds an audience that it can both horrify yet inspire.