Have you ever had that awful feeling of something crawling under your skin that makes you want to scratch yourself until you bleed? Well, In My Mother’s Skin is the film equivalent of that sensation. Set in the Philippines at the end of World War II, the horror film and Sundance 2023 selection follows an isolated family living in a mansion in the middle of the woods. When the father escapes after finding aid from the Americans, the mother, Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez) falls ill, threatening to leave her children – protagonist Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), and her brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella) – stranded and helpless. That is, until Ligaya deals with a fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) to set everything right.
Kenneth Dagatan‘s direction and by Russell Morton‘s cinematography are a heavenly pairing. Every frame is a work of art worthy of a museum (or, at the very least, a really nice photography book). And In My Mother’s Skin lingers within every shot to squeeze out maximum discomfort and envelop us, slowly and inexorably, into this world.
In another ideal marriage, the film’s horror is slow and all-consuming – in a word, it’s perfect for this dark fantasy. The blend of magical realism and horror swallows us: ee’re right there with these characters, wondering constantly what could be worse: a flesh eating monster or a life after encountering it. In My Mother’s Skin reminded very much of Pan’s Labyrinth and La Llorona (the phenomenal 2019 Guatemalan version), both of which use the backdrop of war and civil unrest to tell a grounded story that focuses on the effects on the individual rather than on the masses.
In the case of Dagatan’s film, the desperation of youth and the uncertainty of distress was palpable all the way through; it added to my experience as an audience member because our experiences on this earth teach us that there is no happy ending regardless of the path we take. I enjoyed the number of times that Ligaya’s deal with the fairy felt like the better option. We knew no humans would offer the girl aid – not when humans are at least as bad as evil, flesh-eating monsters.
In My Mother’s Skin also uses cicadas as a motif. It’s an interesting touch and stuck with me, especially as I hear them out my window right now. The film’s monster is starved, but likes to play with its food. Its constant buzzing becomes an ominous reminder.
Felicity Kyle Napuli is great as the heroine Tala. Her desperation as the oldest child drives her; she’s afraid for her family and just wants to do something to help them. With desperation, though, comes another side effect of youth: carelessness. James Mavie Estrella is heartbreaking as Bayani. Beauty Gonzalez as their mother is chef’s kiss – her use of movement and body language to portray her character’s change is incredible. Jasmine Curtis-Smith’s divine villainess is exactly as alluring as a fae should be.
When it premiered at Sundance 2023, In My Mother’s Skin didn’t have an official release date. Since then, Amazon Prime Video acquired the rights to distribute the film globally, and an announcement is expected soon.