Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 26th, 2023
In My Mother’s Skin (Kenneth Dagatan, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
The year is 1945, and the Japanese still occupy the Philippines. As two children, a sister and brother, watch a soldier and Filipino collaborator enter their sumptuous home accompanied by their father, the girl tells a tale she heard of how a Japanese man speared a baby with his bayonet. There are atrocities all around, in other words, and no such thing as innocence anymore. Prepare for the worst.
So begins In My Mother’s Skin, from director Kenneth Dagatan (Ma). One needs a strong stomach to watch, but the cinematic rewards are mostly worth the potential nausea. Given that the movie comes with a warning about “extreme violence and gore,” however, viewers beware. Anyone familiar with the tropes of body horror, though, should do just fine.
Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and Bayani (James Mavie Estrella) are that girl and boy, left mostly on their own once their father leaves on a secret mission. Soon, their mother weakens, succumbing to a withering illness, and they wander the surrounding jungle looking for food (their own rations eaten). It’s there that Tala finds a potential solution to all their problems. Unfortunately, the miracle comes with a price.
Which brings us back to the prologue, in which Dagatan treated us to a vision of what was to come, bodies strewn everywhere and a faceless, wasted humanoid figure feasting on the remains, eventually coughing up something vile. That object, we now discover, is a kind of beetle, given to Tala by a mysterious fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) she meets in a cabin, urging her to bring it to her dying mother (Beauty Gonzales). It will save her, she says. Yes, but what else will it do?
What follows is a beautifully photographed bloodfest, the director crafting each image and sequence with great care and design. As a metaphor for the awful destruction of war, it may be brutal but is certainly apt. Unfortunately, not only is innocence lost but innocents are harmed, as well. That, more than the gore, is what proves hardest to take. It is, however, true to the atrocities we inflict on the world.
Sound and picture work together to powerful effect, haunting and horrifying as their combination may be. No one can escape the vicious sadism of the human animal, and our flesh-eating fairy is here to make sure we never will. Moving in on the oozing details in unsettling close-up, Dagatan never fetishizes the nastiness. His camera merely serves as a witness of all that can go wrong in this often-vicious experiment called life.