One of the age old adages in fairytales is “be careful what you wish for”...
...Having just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Kenneth Dagatan’s sophomore feature In My Mother’s Skin delivers a doozy of a story within the realm of this most well-known of warnings.
Set in 1945 Philippines towards the end of WWII, Dagatan’s latest tells the tale of Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), a young Filipino girl whose family is under watch by the same enemy Japanese soldiers that are threatening her village. With her father missing and her mother, Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez) suffering from a deadly illness, Tala is desperate for help…which she finds in a Fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) living in the jungle just outside her home. The Fairy offers Tala a locust which she says will cure her mother, but at a cost. Ignoring her caution, the young girl sets the insect free inside Ligaya, unprepared for the terrible change that is about to overtake her.
Soaked in somber greys and existing in a mansion full of shadows, In My Mother’s Skin calls back to the darker versions of those classic Grimm’s fairytales. You won’t find an ounce of happiness here, or even the occasional sweet feeling. Instead, Dagatan pulls the audience deep down into the ugly pit of war and the devastating cost it has on innocent civilians just outside the confines of the battlefield. Think del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth injected with Filipino folklore.
Death lurks around every corner of this uncomfortably grim tale. Whether it’s the rotting flesh of corpses being feasted on during the opening scene, or Tala’s insistent fear over her mother’s disease, a sinister dread invades every inch of In My Mother’s Skin. It’s in the gloomy lighting of the family’s sprawling house. It’s in the cacophony of locusts which constantly fills the air. And it’s in Tala’s Fairy, donning a breathtaking headdress of locust wings from costume designer Carlo Tabije, a beauty belied by an unsettling performance from Curtis-Smith. The terror of Dagatan’s film is inescapable. The director refuses to let the audience relax, allowing the eeriness of it all to creep up your spine like tiny insect legs.
Of course, in order for the terror to be believable in a dark coming of age story like this, you need a strong lead. That’s always a risk with child actors, but Napuli nails the role with a performance that wrenches your heart right out of your chest. The entire cast is superb, but Napuli is able to grasp the screen with a mix of childish innocence and adult pain that is difficult to watch at times thanks to how effectively she conveys the agony of the situation. A necessary skill, as the brutality of In My Mother’s Skin is uncompromising.
As for the mother, Gonzalez is nightmare-inducing. Her performance as Ligaya comes close to reaching the heights of Takako Fuji as Kayako in Ju-on: The Grudge. Perhaps that’s because the metamorphosis taking place within also has mother gurgling like a human rattlesnake, or maybe it’s the fact that Gonzalez finds all sorts of shuddery positions to contort her body into. Either way, the tragic monster at the heart of In My Mother’s Skin is absolutely terrifying. Pairing Tala with her little brother, Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), the film explores the terror of a changing parent through the eyes of children, emphasized by cringe body horror and an inhuman sound design that trembles the bones.
In My Mother’s Skin throws plenty of scares at the audience which incorporate some J-horror influence—unsettling angles of faces creeping out from under beds and all—yet with many of these scenes going nowhere, they can begin to feel a bit redundant. The same goes for the plot as it bounces back and forth between an inactive Tala and Ligaya sneaking out of her room for a good shock, only to cut away to the next day. I suppose the purgatorial urgency of it is the point though, since Dagatan’s film is more focused on the trapped dread of consequence than anything else. The title isn’t just a hint at the thing nesting inside of Ligaya, but at the forcing of Tala to understand the difficult choices of adulthood. There is a responsibility to being a parent, one that comes with costs as great as the rewards. While there is a war going on outside her home, a similar war of choice takes place inside Tala, influenced by the spirituality of religion that has been instilled in her by her mother, and the deathly reality of the earth. From Catholic iconography placed all throughout the house to the abandoned church choked by vines in which the Fairy resides, Tala finds herself in a battle over which to follow.
A meandering film with mostly inactive characters, In My Mother’s Skin is more of a creepy crawl than a funhouse of horrors. Sinister. Cruel. It tests the audience’s protective shell with a heavy weight sure to crush some like a bug while leaving others wanting more from this quiet tale. Though it falls just short of potential, Dagatan delivers a fascinating fairytale darkened by the inevitability of death and the consequence of choice. This is one that will be buzzing in my mind for quite a while.
By Matt Konopka