In My Mother’s Skin
Directed by Kenneth Dagatan
Amazon Prime Video
Brontë H. Lacsamana authored this text.Reporter
For those looking for unconventional portrayals of the Philippines’ experience during war and its aftermath, there is a significant collection of pieces available.
In 1982, Jose Javier Reyes wrote and Peque Gallaga directed the film Oro, Plata Mata (Gold, Silver, Death) which takes place during World War II on the island of Negros. The movie portrays the downfall and aggression of wealthy haciendero families.
In 1976, Mario O’Hara wrote and directed “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” (Three Years Without God), which takes place during WWII in Laguna. The film depicts a doomed romance between a teacher and a soldier, disrupted by the invasion of the Japanese.
My Mother’s Skin, a film directed by Kenneth Dagatan, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States earlier this year. The movie carries on the timeless themes of its two predecessors.
During the same timeframe and in a similar provincial environment, this piece delves deeper into the effects of colonial trauma on the Filipino sense of self. What makes it unique is its focus on the ominous atmosphere of war, told through the lens of a young protagonist who must navigate through false promises and protect herself.
The movie by Dagatan tells the story of Tala (played by Felicity Kyle Napuli), a teenage girl who is determined to find a cure for her sick mother, Ligaya (played by Beauty Gonzalez), while her father has been forced to flee due to allegations of theft involving Japanese gold. With her mother’s weak condition and her innocent younger brother, Tala must take on the responsibility of finding food and medicine as they struggle to survive the war in their rural home.
During her adventure in the jungle, she comes across a enigmatic diwata, known as a “fairy” in the Philippines (portrayed by Jasmine Curtis-Smith), who offers her help. Despite having no other options, her choice to believe in this creature leads to the downfall of her family.
According to this synopsis, it seems likely that the story will be similar to Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth. Like the film, it follows a young girl who encounters the darker side of folklore during a significant historical conflict.
This fairy tale, however, is much more ruthless and violent.
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.
The standout in this movie is Napuli, who plays Tala and is making her film debut after a background in theater. She gives a remarkable performance as a teenager forced to be courageous in order to protect herself and her loved ones in the midst of dire circumstances. As the story progresses, she fully embodies the role of a young girl overwhelmed and bewildered by the constant threats she faces from both humans (both Filipino and foreign) and otherworldly beings who prey on their vulnerability.
Enhancing the gradual and unsettling scares showcased by Dagatan (renowned for his 2015 horror short Sanctissima and his 2019 supernatural horror film Ma) are the captivating visuals and sound effects.
Coming from Cebu and valuing the importance of representing the unique perspectives of different regions, it is no wonder that his movies are heavily immersed in the wild and vibrant atmosphere of rural Philippines. The exceptional sound design by Eddie Huang and Yi Ling Chen enhances this experience, utilizing the sounds of cicadas and rustling leaves in a hauntingly effective manner, effectively conveying the sense of being trapped in a tropical setting.
The captivating images contain religious symbols such as Catholic statues, which the family frequently pray to, and the diwata’s stunning attire inspired by the iconic Santo Niño. Benjamin Padero’s production design presents these visuals as haunting reminders of the unfortunate Filipino inclination towards false hope and misguided faith, in line with Tala’s susceptibility to the diwata’s manipulations.
In My Mother’s Skin is an atmospheric horror that effectively delivers subtle scares with a steady pace. However, it may occasionally lack satisfying pay-offs, which only adds to the overall sense of dread.
Transitioning from Sundance to a streaming service like Amazon Prime Video (available worldwide, I must mention!) may seem like an unconventional path for a unique film, but I hope it discovers an audience that it can both shock and motivate.