Tuesday, March 21, 2023

In My Mother’s Skin review: a truly terrifying Filipino fairy tale

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It doesn’t take long In my mother’s skin become dirty. Within the first few minutes, writer and director Kenneth Dagatan’s horror flick subjects you to some truly gruesome images of carnivorous creatures, and honestly, it never really ends. This is a blood-soaked fairytale, one that combines folklore and history in a way that is reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s defining work, Pan’s labyrinth – only it is a lot scarier.

The film is set in the Philippines in 1945 in the twilight of World War II, with Japanese troops occupying the country. Things are bleak. Early on, you hear children telling horrific stories about the barbaric deeds of the Japanese soldiers, and the family at the center of the story has to survive on whatever leftover food they have left. It only gets worse from there. The story follows young Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) as she deals with an increasing number of problems. First, her father, who is under investigation for stealing gold from the Japanese, flees to help the Americans. Then her mother’s (Beauty Gonzalez) illness worsens to the point that she can’t get out of bed.

One day, while walking through a forbidden part of the forest, Tala stumbles upon a strange place, one she has said can only be reached by those with an ‘unsullied heart’. With few other options, she eventually enlists the help of a mysterious fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who lives there, a creature who knows almost everything about Tala’s family thanks to an army of cricket spies. The fairy’s cure for her mother’s illness… well, things don’t go the way Tala had hoped. Her mother is indeed alive, but she is possessed by something supernatural and violent. I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say she gets it real hungry.

Beauty Gonzalez in In my mother’s skin.
Image: Sundance Institute

Although the general premise and setup of In my mother’s skin has shades of Pans Labyrinth – both are dark fairy tales set against the backdrop of a real war – the film is definitely its own unique thing. Most notably, it’s much more of a pure horror experience; there are some elaborate costumes and interesting folkloric creatures, but this is one movie where you’re more likely to be terrified of its monsters than their fantastical designs. It’s the kind of brutal, graphic and sparse horror you get from a movie like Heir apparent.

There are a few things that In my mother’s skin is doing particularly well. It is very efficient with its fears; it spends a long time building up the fear, with slow-moving camera footage filled with lots of “what the hell is that!” moments are waiting for you to spot. And when you finally see the creatures and the violence they inflict, and all the ensuing gore, it’s so absolutely ferocious that sometimes I had to look the other way. (I watched this movie just before going to bed, which I heartily don’t recommend.) There are also some fantastic performances here; Gonzalez is the stuff of nightmares when she turns it on, Curtis-Smith manages to inhabit both the light and the dark of a possibly evil fairy, and Napuli gets a shockingly impressive vision of a child terrorized by supernatural forces. It all ends with an ending that is both open to interpretation and extremely disturbed.

This review is based on a screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. In my mother’s skin is scheduled for release later this year on Amazon Prime Video.

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