It’s redundant to describe a film as “a dark fairy tale.” All fairy tales are imbued with the darkness that children understand on a primal level. Folklore from every culture is filled with fear, grief, and death, because these are universal experiences. They feel especially potent for children, who sometimes lack the world-weariness that gives context to their terror, but children understand these heavy concepts just as much as adults do. Writer-director Kenneth Dagatan’s IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN is one such potent fairy tale. It turns a tale of war and colonialism into a microcosm of faith, loss, and betrayal; it is a world where fairies are not to be trusted, no matter how beautiful they may be.

Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and her brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella) live in the Philippines near the end of World War II. Their father is gone, and their mother Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez) is ill. They’re running out of food, so when Tala finds some candy in the forest one day, she can’t resist it. The candy is a trap, though, for a Fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) appears, offering her things that sound too good to be true: treats, a delicious feast out of nowhere, and most importantly, a cure for her mother. That cure sends Ligaya down a disturbing road of transformation and destruction, and Tala soon learns that not all fairy tales have happy endings.

The Fairy is a striking mix of native and invading species. She has insect wings and a voice that echoes like a cicada; indeed, she tells Tala that she gets her power from the cicadas that turn the forest into a living thing, always singing and watching. Their frenzied song is a truly effective bit of sound design, turning the cicadas’ omnipresence into a maddening reminder that the worst is yet to come. The Fairy’s elaborate, beautiful garb (courtesy of costume designer Carlo Tabije) looks just like the statue of the Virgin Mary that Ligaya prays to throughout the day. Dagatan isn’t just interested in the Japanese and American invasions of the Philippines alluded to in the adult conversations about the war. He’s also commenting on the Spanish colonialism that brought Catholicism to the islands. The Fairy is both a representation of all of Tala’s childhood hopes and fears and a complicated mix of cultures, including those that have invaded the Philippines over the centuries.

The gore and body horror in the aptly named IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN reminds the viewer of other Southeast Asian skin-crawling horror films. The contrast between the grotesque special effects and the forlorn tone makes for a remarkable horror fable. The foreboding yet mournful score highlights Tala and Bayani’s isolation and hopelessness. With no adults left to look out for them and a dwindling food supply, alone during wartime, where can they go? What can they do? Dagatan and cinematographer Russell Adam Morton weaponize slow pans that reveal disturbing shots of corpses and dense woods full of whispers. The skillful framing and patient camerawork turn beautiful golden hour shots into reminders that — like many classic fairy tales — these two young children are alone in the woods with a monster. Whether that monster is a devious Fairy or the war itself, the result is the same.

IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN is a haunting piece of Filipino folk horror that, yes, gets under the viewer’s skin. It’s a captivating and heartbreaking story that embraces the darkness at the heart of all fairy tales and finds the horror in grief, loss, and displacement. Ultimately, IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN takes the viewer on a child’s futile and terrifying journey to try to understand a world that makes no sense.

IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It has been acquired by Amazon Prime Video.

Jessica Scott
Follow Me
Latest posts by Jessica Scott (see all)
Liked it? Take a second to support Jessica Scott on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Movie Reviews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: