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‘In My Mother’s Skin’: Flesh-eating fairies are not your friend

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Poster for Kenneth Dagatan’s In My Mother’s Skin.

When it comes to mythical and cryptid beasts, Asia has such a rich and varied tapestry of folklore to draw upon that it’s a crime we don’t see more of them in horror films. Take Folklore, HBO Asia’s well-regarded horror anthology series as an example — here, directors from throughout Asia made short-form concept films about local creatures that each deserved their very own feature-length film (someone make it happen!). And if you think about the now well-regarded like the Japanese onryo, it’s amazing how she’s taken her humble beginnings haunting locals to TV screens around the world. Similarly, Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside, which had its premiere at last year’s SXSW, introduced the Western world to the devious pishacha from Dharmic religions with gory bravado. So when Kenneth Dagatan’s horror film In My Mother’s Skin was initially announced as part of 2023’s Sundance Midnight Competition, three words caught my attention: Flesh. Eating. Fairy.

In My Mother’s Skin takes place in the Philippines at the end of World War II, and is centered around the young Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and her family who live in a mansion out in the middle of a lush jungle. Her father Aldo (Arnold Reyes) is a formerly successful merchant, and the family is paid a visit by the Japan-aligned Antonio (Ronnie Lazaro) who threatens the family if they don’t reveal the location of their gold. After insisting that there’s nothing, Aldo leaves the family with Antonio to assuage him and promises to return with help. 

Weeks pass and Aldo does not return. Tala, her brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), and mother Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez) remain at the mansion, but their food starts running low. Ligaya eventually becomes ill, and despite Tala’s protests, still believes that her husband will one day return home. No longer able to sit idly by, Tala and Bayani venture out into the forest to find help and get separated along the way. Unluckily for Tala, she accidentally stumbles upon a magical fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith)’s lair. The fairy offers to help the eager Tala by curing her mother, but that’s when things start to take a dark turn…

In My Mother’s Skin is kind of a wild visual departure for Filipino director Kenneth Dagatan, but it seems like everything he’s made before it has built up to the masterful horror storytelling in the film. Dagatan’s first short film, 2017’s “Sanctissima,” won the coveted Audience Award at Cinemalaya, and he’s been firmly in the realm of horror ever since. Follow up short-films like “Sleepy Eyes” was a practice in jump-scare horror, before he dove into directing a few feature length horror films. Interestingly enough, Ma, a 2018 horror film with a very similar storyline as In My Mother’s Skin, almost seems like the director’s first go at the subject matter before refining it with this feature.

Though it would be very easy to write it off as a Filipino Pan’s Labyrinth (the similarities are pretty substantial), In My Mother’s Skin truly is its own entity, somehow taking an already dark premise and makes it even bleaker. This is a film that doesn’t pull its punches and isn’t afraid to hit you with the implications of a harsh reality — even though the film deals with folklorish, fairy tale creatures. The oppressive setting of the film and the stakes involved are constantly reminding the viewer of the film’s brutal realism and the actual horrors that come with it. All of these elements come together to give its viewer a sickly feeling in their stomach — one that doesn’t let up long past the film’s end. Trust and the loss of innocence are major themes here, and it’s almost doing the film a disservice by revealing that much. By the end of the film, after all the chaos has subsided and you’re left with the debris of what’s left, it’ll leave you absolutely speechless.

Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli).

A film that’s more of a slow-burn than a mainstream jump-scare-a-thon, In My Mother’s Skin maintains its creepy atmosphere throughout with wonderful performances from its young leads, gorgeous cinematography, and its frightening score. Lead actress Felicity Kyle Napuli is so good in her first lead role that I’ve had to ponder just how they were able to get such a harrowing, traumatizing performance from such a young actress. The rest of the cast also plays fantastic supporting roles, but the film really is Napuli’s to shine in.

The fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) and Tala.

And though there have been many who have opposed the term “elevated horror” in the horror field, I have to admit that In My Mother’s Skin more or less fits that pantheon of films that are gorgeous to look at, conceptually sound, and boasts a message with a punishing, deep impact. Wonderfully shot candle lit scenes here add to the mystery and weathered atmosphere of the film, surprising its audience with the set’s grand beauty alongside its frights. A dynamic score by Sing Wu is on par with the frights served up by any of Colin Stetson’s music, bringing a rolling cloud of creeping sounds to the sound stage. What’s more, along with British-Filipino Paris Zarcilla’s film Raging Grace, In My Mother’s Skin dives into parts of the Philippines’ past and uses them as driving forces for their storyline. If either film had been picked up by A24, you’d undoubtedly be hearing a lot more about both films in the popular horror canon. The gorgeously designed, Catholicism-alluding fairy, for example, is on par with some of horror’s classic movie villains, and it’s a shame that she’s been criminally overlooked at the time of this publication.

But even though In My Mother’s Skin works exceptionally well as a brooding horror piece, there are a few interesting choices made here that leave the watcher wanting a bit more. A lot of times, the film cuts away right as the horror starts to pick up, leaving you to wonder what happened during a few awkward transitions. This is something that happens multiple times throughout the film — breaking the rising uneasiness a bit with interruptions of confusion. It’s true that the masterful sound design of the film really closes in some of those visual gaps, but the implied horror does still provide the scares without showing it — maybe if only to spare the viewer from even more frights. Despite all this, Dagatan’s In My Mother’s Skin remains brutal, nauseating, and really drives home the horrors of war… and fairies.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

In My Mother’s Skin is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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