Squelching sounds radiate over a dark screen as we fade in on a humanoid creature chowing down on a victim’s throat. After pulling away and exposing an inhumanly long tongue, the creature begins to gag, vomiting up a small black bird. So begins Kenneth Dagatan‘s In My Mother’s Skin, a horror fairy tale that will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but has a much more sinister side in store for audiences who are willing to sit through its more deliberately paced plot machinations.
Set in the Philippines at the end of World War II, In My Mother’s Skin follows the story of Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), a 14-year-old daughter of a textile merchant who lives in a war-worn colonial house with her sickly mother Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez) and younger brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella). Under suspicion of stealing Japanese gold, Tala’s father mysteriously leaves to barter for his family’s freedom, and his family finds themselves left to their own devices. While exploring the forest one day, Tala crosses paths with a mysterious fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who offers her a chance to cure her mother with a magical insect. She offers a word of warning before handing over the bug but, desperate for her mother’s survival, Tala ignores the warning and gives her mother the cure. This leads to disastrous consequences for her and her family.
This is a personal project for Dagatan, whose grandfather was a guerilla soldier during the Second World War. Leaving his family behind in order to fight invading Japanese soldiers, his wife stayed home to care for their children, not knowing when or if he would return. Dagatan personifies that trauma into a flesh-eating fairy, crafting a creature reminiscent of a djinn in its methods but unique in its appearance.
In My Mother’s Skin has all of the right ingredients, technically speaking. The production design of the house, as well as the surrounding forest, is truly stunning. SiNg Wu’s ominous score looms over every frame, foreshadowing the horrors yet to come. It is the sound design, however, beautifully orchestrated by Eddie Huang and Chen Yi Ling, that will get under your skin (not unlike the insect that literally gets under Ligaya’s skin).
There isn’t much in the way of costumes, save for the Virgin Mary-inspired look of the fairy, but it’s such a striking visage (Mary’s halo is made into a ring of fairy wings framing Curtis-Smith’s head) that it leaves the most lasting of impressions. One just wishes the creature had more of a presence in the film, appearing in fleeting moments to offer Tala a duplicitous wish before exiting the film until Tala’s desperation rears its ugly head once again.
But even with all of those strengths, In My Mother’s Skin struggles to hold one’s attention. Deliberately paced to a fault, the film could have used a firmer hand in the editing room. There were several walkouts in my screening, but whether that was due to the sluggish pace or the handful of upsettingly violent scenes involving children is up in the air. That being said, Skin does have some effectively gruesome moments, with the results of Ligaya’s possession calling to mind many J-horror tropes.
Napuli serves as the film’s emotional core and gives a strong performance, but despite Tala’s youthful naïveté there is a certain frustration to her choices, with her realization of the fairy’s treachery coming a bit too late into the film. This frustration makes it difficult to make an emotional connection with her character. Similarly, Dagatan’s script falls into an episodic nature, with the fairy approaching Tala with a solution to her problems that will inevitably turn sour. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
While the individual pieces of In My Mother’s Skin are there, it doesn’t quite come together by the time the credits roll. It’s a technically ambitious effort from Dagatan, and while one can appreciate the personal nature of the film, it doesn’t quite translate to a superior final product.
In My Mother’s Skin had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will stream on Prime Video later this year.