Kenneth Dagatan’s WWII Fairy Tale Features A Wicked Morality Not For The Faint Of Heart [Sundance]

Feb 8, 2023

The opening scene of Kenneth Dagatan’s sophomore feature, “In My Mother’s Skin,” promises the audience each of the horror genre’s grisliest thrills: The squelching sounds of oozing blood, the sight of flesh-ripping carnage in progress as well as in past tense, a carnivorous monster with a death rattle that’d make Sadako Yamamura croak with pride and a rangy tongue that’d stir Gene Simmons’ admiration. Dagatan keeps his promises. “In My Mother’s Skin” goes hard with a gruesome prologue before making a swift transition to a World War II narrative set in a location where the movies rarely tell them. Welcome to 1945 Philippines; have yourself a history lesson.
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For Dagatan, history pairs well with horror as a kamayan consisting of gore, heartbreak, several flavors of deception, desperation, and another helping of gore. The Philippines was the site of the second Pearl Harbor, the Empire of Japan’s follow-up to Pearl Harbor 9 hours after its attack on Honolulu; Dagatan claims a piece of that background for his setting, and for the smoldering of a family caught in the conflict, stricken by disease, and flirting with famine. In WWII cinema canon, the Philippines owns a modest scrap of real estate with films like “Back Door to Hell,” “Back to Bataan,” “Fires on the Plain,” and “The Great Raid.” But none of them personalize, or adequately contextualize, the country’s WWII legacy the way “In My Mother’s Skin” does by marrying genre to reality. 
The film is a fairy tale, and a welcome reminder that “fairy tale” and “positive outcomes” don’t necessarily have the same zip code. Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and her brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella) are holed up with their father, Aldo (Arnold Reyes), and mother, Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez), in their stately but weathered home; an array of material signifiers – elegant glassware, ornate religious icons, stately cabinetry – tell of a family of means, knocked down about a dozen rungs on the status ladder by the Japanese occupation, and made somber by their enemies’ ogreish behavior. “Did you hear about the baby who was bayoneted in Manila?” Tala asks Bayani. Maybe she’s regurgitating pitch-black hearsay. Maybe she’s passing on oral chronicles of one atrocity among many done on her people. Either way, the thought curdles the guts. 
Not long into the film, Aldo leaves to mollify Antonio (Ronnie Lazaro), a vulturous collaborator and frequent visitor at Aldo’s table; he suspects Aldo of squirreling away a pot of Japanese gold in the house, and he’s bent on finding it. So Aldo skedaddles. He’s banking on Antonio following him and leaving his family alone, and he banks well. What he doesn’t account for is Tala and Bayani making an unauthorized hike into the surrounding jungle, and Tala likewise doesn’t account for a chance run-in with a fairy, credited only as “The Fairy” (Jasmine Curtis-Smith). 
The Fairy looks the way a fairy tale fairy ought to, resplendent with a beatific mug, but she talks with a honeyed tongue. Tala being but a kiddo, she invests her faith in The Fairy on sight. Here’s her ticket back to the good life, or at least the life where her mother isn’t circling the drain and her father isn’t hiding from Japanese stormtroopers who call infanticide “entertainment.” Surveying the grand scheme of things, no one can blame her for hoping. Ligaya is dying. Aldo is missing. Bayani is hungry. Take a beat to slip yourself into Tala’s sandals. You’d make the same choice she does. Hunger is a powerful motivator and The Fairy is convincing. But she’s a demon in fae clothing, not to be believed, not to be trusted, and definitely not to be trifled with. Tala’s arrangement with the two-faced creature can only end in tears.
“In My Mother’s Skin” invites easy comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s greatest masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” on account of entirely surface-level similarities: A wartime backdrop, a child’s-eye perspective, a family in peril, an enigmatic supernatural being dwelling in the woods, corpse munching. But Dagatan’s film strikes a much closer resemblance to Indonesia’s horror cinema, like “The Queen of Black Magic,” “Impetigore,” and “Santet,” movies that put a premium on families as focal points, the better to fray viewers’ nerve endings with relentless hyperviolence. “In My Mother’s Skin” has little use for the wonder del Toro captures in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and frankly all of his monster movies. If Dagatan shares del Toro’s sense that monsters are awesome, he keeps it to himself in his movie, where monsters are just plain old monsters. There is no off-putting, overeager metaphor here. The real monster isn’t “man”; man just does monstrous deeds. The real monster is The Fairy. Deal with it.
Dagatan invests meaning in his story, of course. He just isn’t pushy about it. That’s a good thing. Horror is, always has been, and always will be, sociopolitical. “In My Mother’s Skin’s” splatter-happy excess tells of what lengths people will go to just to scrape by in extreme circumstances, whether that means betraying each other – even Tala’s beloved housekeeper, Amor (Angeli Bayani), has an agenda – or making accords with treacherous, smiling pixies who dress to the nines but live in overgrown forest huts. The Fairy doesn’t pass any kind of smell test known to man, but why would Tala bother taking a sniff when she’s backed against the edge of destitution? “Pan’s Labyrinth” looks for, and indisputably finds, magic in the macabre, but “In My Mother’s Skin” flops in the macabre like a dog rolling in grass. There’s a scent Dagatan wants to waft off of his film, that’s for sure, but the stink of chewed-up carcasses isn’t for the fainthearted. 
Nihilism isn’t to every audience’s taste. Now, in particular, people look to horror for an optimism contrary to the genre’s posture, because the world is itself a shambling parade of fucking awfulness; if you need optimism, there are worse places to look than in cinema’s spookiest tradition. But that means “In My Mother’s Skin,” effective as it is at doing to the audience what The Fairy does to Ligaya, is fighting an uphill battle, at least among horror’s casual participants. Nothing is good; everything is bad, and has been bad since the 1940s and well before. There’s not much succor in the message. But when a horror movie goes out of its way to make its viewers feel as terrible as “In My Mother’s Skin” does, then that movie might just as well make feeling terrible worth it. Dagatan’s eye for gnarly practical and CG effects is buttressed by solid visual sensibilities, occasionally hamstrung by stray washed-out nighttime sequences, and wicked morality. It’s the bitterest stroke of irony: In showing everything while sparing his audience nothing, Dagatan relates to us the same way as The Fairy relates to Tala. [B-]
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