Folklore and horror are often two sides of the same coin. From Britain’s “The Wicker Man” and America’s “The Blair Witch Project” to Guatemala’s “La Llona” and “Quaidan,” filmmakers around the world have created or created local myths to tug at the nerves of their audiences. Japan For the latest proof, look no further than The Philippines and “In My Mother’s Skin” — already picked up by Amazon ahead of its Sundance Tonight premiere. Writer-director Kenneth Tagatan’s second feature, 2018’s “Mother” (no relation to the Octavia Spencer film), takes place in the waning months of World War II, as Japan’s occupation of the Philippines nears its (un)merciful end. While that watershed conflict is mostly confined to the background, the film’s first line of dialogue makes it clear that political and supernatural horror will intermingle: “Have you heard of the bayoneted child in Manila?”
Judging by the nearby palatial estate where much of the film takes place, things must have been pretty good for 14-year-old Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and her family before the war. They have a live-in servant (Angeli Bayani) and are located in a lush setting, but when we meet them everything is deteriorating – not least because her father is accused of hiding Japanese gold somewhere on the property and has been forced to Try to do good by leaving his wife and children behind. Their deserted mansion feels haunted from the moment we step into it, always dimly lit as we see their faces reflected in mirrors rather than overhead. As food becomes increasingly scarce, Tala and her brother Bayani (James Mavi Estrella) are sent to forage one day by their ailing mother Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez). What they get is not edible.
A Western analogue might be Hansel and Gretel, where young siblings wander a seemingly abandoned house in the woods, oblivious to the evil within. But Tagatan’s vision is still dark. There are overgrown plants, stained glass windows and finally, a fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who appears friendly at first. “Only the pure innocent can find this place,” the nameless being tells Tala in an attempt to calm her nerves. Although skeptical, Tala believes him — unaware of the fact that the winged insects who tell this fairy everything she knows we’ve just seen scavenge a bloated corpse.
Somewhere between a genie and a shapeshifter, this fairy is above all else a trickster. As long as Tala listens to him, he offers solutions to all of the girl’s problems — including, most importantly, a cure for her mother’s failing health that may come at the cost of the League’s humanity. The flesh-eating gore that follows is extreme but never absurd, and perhaps preferable to what’s happening in battle somewhere beyond the treeline. This horror is hinted at, but never shown.
“On My Mother’s Skin” isn’t all blood and guts. Its dreamy atmosphere is evocative of childhood fairy tales, with dark origins that most of us don’t realize until adulthood. Coincidentally or otherwise, there’s Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” as well as the work of Apichatpong Weracethakul: “In My Mother’s Skin” finds a rare sweet spot between storybook nightmare and historical allegory.
Less impressive than Tagatan’s direction is Russell Morton’s cinematography: Much of “In My Mother’s Skin” takes place at night, with Tala and her family bathed in pale moonlight that looks as haunting as it does beautiful. The visuals have a softness that emphasizes the vulnerability of the characters, constantly reminding us that whatever lurks in the shadows is perfectly capable of burrowing under their skin and piercing their flesh – a fate that happens to more than one of them. It’s a reminder to be careful what you wish for, especially when the person offering to grant those wishes isn’t human.