The strongest horror to come out of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival was also its only Filipino feature. In My Mother’s Skin from writer-director Kenneth Dagatan blends Filipino folklore with some sharp, grisly moments of horror to deliver an unsettling genre piece that will linger with audiences well past the end credits.
Picking up at the tail end of WWII, The Philippines are occupied by Japanese soldiers who are slowly losing their grip over the nation. In My Mother’s Skin centres on a wealthy Filipino family based in their rural country mansion, where patriarch Aldo is accused of stealing and hiding Japanese gold. Fearing his slaughter by the occupying forces, he escapes leaving his family behind. Young daughter Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) must fend for her family, including her increasingly sick mother. Running out of options for sustinence, Tala soon strikes up a relationship with a flesh-eating deity (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who rewards her with vast quantities of food – yet expects something in return.
There is a quality of the Gothic to In My Mother’s Skin from its ornate decaying mansion, heavy expanses of dense atmospheric foliage, and sparsely populated furniture filling these spaces. Shot in dark colour palette of greys, browns and blacks by cinematographer Russell Morton – flashes of colour are added most notably in the golds of the magical being’s decadent, extravagant gowns. Whilst this being radiates light, their is a brooding unease when her seemingly gentle presence fills the screen – particularly as the young Tala is lured by her apparent no-strings-attached generosity.
Whilst Tala and her family grow more dependent on the rewards of the deity, elements of horror grow. Tala’s mother becomes increasingly sick – her behaviour veering more animalistic and demeanour showcasing signs of zombie like possession. Dagatan packs In My Mother’s Skin with images of bold horror – scenes of cannibalism, animals emerging from human carcases, decomposition and creatures crawling under the skin – all give the feature some moments of skin-crawling unease. These visuals are accompanied by intense claustrophobic sound design from the crunching and squishing of all from flesh to insects and food.
The malevolent deity is a character shrouded in mystery yet Curtis-Smith embodies her with a strangely absorbing grace – she is a transfixing presence, hypnotic in movements and softly welcoming. Dagatan packs the feature with enough mysticism and folk-horror that it feels as macabre as the most gruesome of fairy tales, In My Mother’s Skin feels steeped in ancient mythology and history – adding all the more to the horror that is presented here.
Young Felicity Kyle Napuli leads with an impressive conviction – the young heroine is thrust into being the main provider for her family with the added pressure of surviving in her enemy occupied homeland. In otherworldly surroundings, she is forced into the depths of the forest, facing pressure and manipulation from the malevolent deity, whilst coping with her mother’s increasingly sinister behaviour. The actress captures a sense of the weight on the fourteen year old’s shoulder, whilst embodying a child like awe.
In its depiction of Gothicism and folk-horror, In My Mother’s Skin is an absorbing and uniquely original horror. Its exploration of the occupied Philippines and malevolent entities through the lens of a fractured family dynamic provides a fascinating canvas for this tale of horror to unfold upon.