The only non-English language film in the Midnight section of this year’s 2023 Sundance Film Festival, In My Mother’s Skin is a gut-wrenching horror story about a girl placed in a desperate situation who makes a choice she quickly regrets. It takes place in the Philippines near the end of World War II, but its themes transcend the specificity of its setting.
With an opening scene that appears to depict some sort of cannibal zombie monster devouring its prey—it’s dark, but you get enough of the details—writer-director Kenneth Dagatan signals that war is not the only danger that awaits. WW2 does loom around the story’s edges, though, imperiling the family at its center in numerous ways. Judging from their large home, which is set apart from the village in a forest filled with chattering insects, their life was comfortable at one point; now, however, they’re running low on food. Another issue is a neighbor who’s allied himself with the occupying Japanese forces, and is convinced the family has a pile of gold stashed somewhere in the house.
A bad situation gets worse when the father slips out to help the Americans, making his wife, Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez), promise not to leave the house—and telling his young son, Bayani (James Mavie Estrella) to take his gun in case he needs to protect Ligaya and Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), Bayani’s slightly older sister. Also around is Amor (Angeli Bayani), the family’s housekeeper, who has her own concerns to deal with—something that becomes difficult as the possibility of starvation sets in and Ligaya becomes dangerously sick, with the strongest medicine available being the devoutly Catholic family’s nightly prayers.
Determined to help, the kids disobey the “don’t leave the house” rule, sneaking out into the thick trees in search of food or any shred of hope that their father is still alive. This leads the naive Tala into an encounter with an ornately gowned, softly smiling being (Jasmine Curtis-Smith)—Tala thinks she’s a fairy, but there’s something off-putting about this creature that the audience can clearly sense. (Horror fans know to distrust anyone who suddenly materializes in an abandoned shack, making declarations like “I’ve been waiting for you!”) When Tala’s new acquaintance proffers a cure for Ligaya, it comes with a warning delivered so gently that it hardly seems threatening, except it totally is, and establishes that a master manipulator has arrived. Tala must make up her own mind, the “fairy” insists, but it comes down to accepting the mysterious potion or watching her mom die. Of course, Tala is too sheltered to understand there’s an additional, unbelievably awful hidden cost to all of this.
Things only get darker—often literally; In My Mother’s Skin makes great use of strategically under-lit night scenes, all the better to disorient its viewers and characters alike—and more dire from there, as the zombie-thing we met in the film’s opening moments circles back into the plot, as expected. A few sudden shocks aside, the path that Tala and her family are forced to follow is clear as soon as we realize the stakes, and In My Mother’s Skin is not exactly a fast-paced thriller; it’s more of a slow-burn stroll toward what we know is coming, with atmospheric dread pressing in from all sides. You could file this bleak fairy tale alongside The Others, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Tigers Are Not Afraid—three films that are quite different in many ways from In My Mother’s Skin, but share its grimly unsentimental examination of how children deal with horrors of their own while the horrors of war rage just beyond the boundaries of their lives.
In My Mother’s Skin had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival; it will stream on Prime Video later this year.
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