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“We’re Making Cinema Now, a Universal Language”: Kenneth Dagatan on In My Mother’s Skin

A girl kneels in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary in an outdoor courtyard surrounded by stained glass windows.In My Mother’s Skin, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Antonio (Ronnie Lazaro), a Filipino comprador for the Japanese Imperial Army, harasses a well-to-do family for the whereabouts of gold bars. He suspects the patriarch, Aldo (Arnold Reyes), a “great merchant importer,” of stealing some from the kōgun (Imperial Army) and hiding them somewhere among their cavernous colonial home or surrounding property. Flanked by two armed Japanese soldiers, Antonio leaves the family with a threatening impression and suggests his patience will wear thinner upon subsequent visits. Left alone, Aldo’s wife Ligaya (Beauty Gonzales) asks her husband whether he took the gold. “I will never do anything to put the family in danger,” Aldo replies. But has he already? Then he leaves his wife and two young children, Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), alone in the vacuous and isolated house to barter for their safety with the Japanese. To reassure his children, he expresses hope in the renewed presence of the American army, back to reclaim the Philippines for themselves. 

So starts writer-director Kenneth Dagatan’s In My Mother’s Skin, a Filipino horror film playing in the Midnight section of this year’s Sundance. Dagatan begins by riffing on the myth of Yamashita’s gold—that Japanese loot from conquests in Southeast Asia was buried in tunnels, caves or underground complexes in the Philippines—then on other Filipino myths and mythological creatures, like the aswang, a bloodsucking shapeshifter. In a pool with various genre tropes and film references, these fantastical allusions are given a backbone by the film’s dense historical context, the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and Dagatan’s intimate understanding of the period’s hopelessness. When Aldo doesn’t return to his family for weeks, food begins to run short, Ligaya grows ill and the comprador returns each time more viciously. Tala, the eldest daughter, finds a fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) inside an overgrown chapel in the woods who promises to nurse her mother to health and magically erase her family’s travails. But could the fairy’s promises, much like that of big white brother United States, have dastardly ulterior motives? The film owes a structural debt to Pan’s Labyrinth but, in place of that film’s mischievous faun, there’s the ominous fairy, and in place of the Nazi-backed Falangist Nationalist Faction, there is the Japanese Imperial Army and the offscreen presence of American GIs.

The important distinction between the films is the higher volume and complexity of the false promises that befall In My Mother’s Skin’s young protagonist Tala and how she decides to deal with them. Not only is Japan beckoning the Philippines with its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere ideology, but their original occupant, the US, is beckoning them with the support of their military power to fend off the former. Meanwhile, the fairy—a clear stand-in for Catholicism, supplanted by the archipelago’s original colonizer, Spain—emptily promises Tala whatever she can wish and pray for. Complicating matters, both Japan and the CIA have weaponized the country’s myths against itself—the latter once draining blood from the bodies of communist Huk soldiers and puncturing their necks with bitemarks to suggest the presence of real-life aswang. At times, not even the country’s monsters are certain.

Ahead of his Sundance premiere, I talked with writer and director Kenneth Dagatan about helming his ambitious, child-starring, internationally co-produced and effects-heavy horror feature with limited time and budget.

In My Mother’s Skin will stream on Amazon Prime sometime later this year.

Filmmaker: You’re mixing a lot of mythologies here, first and foremost Yamashita’s gold.

Dagatan: In almost every [Philippine] household it’s common lore that there’s a gold bar inside your house—when I was a kid, my father was convinced there was Japanese gold inside the house and was searching for it. I played around with that idea because I wanted to add a personal touch to the film. With the lore, I really tried to make the Philippine mythology, like with the aswang and the fairy, really personal to me but also really Filipino. 

Filmmaker: What folklore did you reference for the fairy? I couldn’t pin it to one thing in particular. It closely resembles the family’s Mary on the altar, and the character in general is a damning metaphor for the false promise of Catholicism.

Dagatan: The design of the fairy is very closely based on the baby Jesus saint in my hometown, Cebu. We actually celebrated that saint, Santo Niño, last Sunday. It’s a baby Jesus in a beautiful red and gold wardrobe. As a kid growing up I would always see this image, mirroring Catholicism and its hope. The Philippines is a very Catholic country and I really wanted to provide a contrast to that hope of Catholicism.

Filmmaker: How did the cicada backstory fuse with this Santa Niño-based fairy character?

Dagatan: The cicada lore in the film came from my production designers [Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije]. I really wanted the fairy to be this mother nature in previous drafts—lots of insects, trees and nature elements. But in the shooting script, I wrote it as a beetle, not a cicada. Throughout preproduction, me and my production designers talked about how the story keeps coming back to Tala’s loss of innocence and transformation—her rebirth, technically. They suggested the cicada because it rebirths in stages into a beautiful insect. 

Filmmaker: What was it like working with MalasMalas Studios [whose Instagram bio reads: “Resident chaotic™️ post-production boutique”]? All of the VFX, as well as the SFX, in the film look really impressive.

Dagatan: Given the crammed schedule, I was very happy we were able to pull it off. They were really open to suggestions, and I kept asking them if they had suggestions—I kept asking if they thought the VFX were working. I’m really impressed by their work. 

Filmmaker: Did you collaborate with anyone else on the VFX?

Dagatan: Just them. It’s just like a four person company, so small and tight and very good.

Filmmaker: Is the vomited bird practical or VFX?

Dagatan: I’m happy you asked that question because I was a bit anxious about how it looked. [laughs] It’s a combination of practical effects and VFX. We have a puppet bird insert and wires, and VFX just removes the wires and enhances the eyes and beak. So I think it’s 70% practical and 30% VFX.  My inspiration is the Philippine fairy bluebird [Tigmamanukan]. It’s a real bird endemic to the Philippines. In our mythology, fairy bluebirds were known as omen birds of the gods, a bird of the encantos. I decided to choose this bird so that it was different from the real mythology where the aswang vomits a blackbird or a crow.

Remember when the bird is eaten by the fairy? I’m very happy we pulled that off, because the team just gave me this jelly-type of bird that tasted like coffee jelly. [laughs] Then we enhanced it in post and did some VFX.

Filmmaker: What did you do to enhance the bird vomiting scenes—where the actors’ heads/mouths suck in and seem to shrink before they spit them out?

Dagatan: All practical. Every shot of the characters’ vomiting the bird, I think there are just two, are all practical—that’s all the actors, so props to them! [laughs]

Filmmaker: Was the house an existing location or did you have to build it?

Dagatan: When I decided to make the milieu of the story World War II, I started researching how classic Filipino films portrayed it. I watched this very famous, classic Filipino film from the 1980s called Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death], directed by Peque Gallaga. I watched the film again and again just to get an idea of the floor plan of this old mansion back in World War II. I wrote the script with the floor plan of Oro, Plata, Mata [in mind]. I copied the whole floor plan of the movie and played around with it. When we got to the location scout, we visited a lot of ancestral houses; but it was really hard to find what was in my mind, so I asked if we could visit the location of Oro, Plata, Mata. We flew into Bacolod City, a province very far from Manila, with the cinematographer and the team. When I first saw the house, I told them, “This is it. We need to shoot the film here!” We compromised where some of the rooms are placed, but technically that’s the house I envisioned while writing the film. I’m very honored to be able to shoot in that house.

Filmmaker: Did any other films shoot there after Oro, Plata, Mata?

Dagatan: I think we’re the third film. I can’t remember the second.

Filmmaker: The house looks brand new. What condition was it in and how did you dress it?

Dagatan: The house has a long history and survived bombings in World War II. Actually a priest—we call him Monsignor—lives there. He’s the great-grandson of the owner of the house, so it is really well-maintained in its original design. We were very lucky because when we got there they were renovating the house. For me, this was good, because the film is set in the 1940s and the house should look new. My production designers were very happy. The priest actually lived there while we were filming. He was just in his room sleeping. One time we were filming, at like 1AM, a very heavy scene, characters crying, and suddenly we hear this splash of water. The priest was taking a bath. [laughs

My production designers enhanced a bit and we built the altar, but most of what you see in the house was there. The priest was telling us like, “No! Use this item because it’s more period correct.” So, we used the items he suggested. He’s like what, almost 100 years old? Really fun shooting there.

Filmmaker: What was the journey to funding and becoming a Singaporean and Taiwanese co-production?

Dagatan: This is new for me. It all started with my Philippine producers Bradley Liew and Bianca Balbuena. Way, way back in 2020 we got into the NAFF IT Project Market of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival where we won the Discovery of Asia Award. Then we met our Singaporean producers, Huang Junxiang and Darryl Yeo of Zhaowei Films. It was a long process of development which ended with us applying and getting the Singapore Film Commission IMDA coproduction grant and Clover Films private investment. Bradley and Bianca then acquired the Film Development Council of the Philippines International Coproduction Fund. Finally, we met our Taiwanese producer Stefano Centini, who then got us the Taiwan Creative Content Agency Fund for post-production. This film is actually the first horror film supported by these funds altogether, so it was a very unique set of circumstances where they all believed in the film. We are so grateful. 

The deal [with the Singaporean fund] was that I should have Singaporean key staff for a creative exchange between Singaporeans and Filipinos. So, my cinematographer was a Singaporean, my makeup artist was a Singaporean. Working with foreign creatives helped me a lot in building the whole world, because they have different taste, culture and ideas. Then Taiwan came to fund the post-production of the film. We did all the post-production of the film like editing and sound design—the online edit—in Taiwan. My editor is Taiwanese, and it’s a very different process as well because it’s my first time working with a foreign editor. We had a translator to translate everything because he can’t speak English that well. So it was a very interesting and funny process.

Filmmaker: Was there other Philippine cinema besides Oro, Plata, Mata that you referenced while making the film?

Dagatan: In terms of character arcs, I was really going back and forth between Three Godless Years (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos) by Mario O’Hara and Oro, Plata, Mata by Peque Gallaga. [The former’s] set in World War II as well. I kept coming back to this and Oro, Plata, Mata to write the story of the film. In terms of atmosphere and mood, I kept coming back to The Witch and Hereditary. But my biggest inspiration for the whole film was Pan’s Labryinth—I think it’s obvious.

Filmmaker: What kind of research did you do into the Japanese occupation of the Philippines?

Dagatan: I did read a lot of articles about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. In terms of films, I watched a lot of documentaries about World War II in general, just to get the milieu. But my main inspiration, because I wanted the film to be as grounded as possible, was my grandfather, who was a guerilla soldier in World War II. During the pandemic, me and my father were talking about how my grandfather and grandmother were really struggling throughout the war. He was telling me how they felt back then and I realized the feeling of loneliness and fear, claustrophobia and suffocation all around us—and that external enemy that we’re too afraid to let into our house—really connected to World War II. I really want to mirror how we feel in pandemic and how they felt in World War II. It’s the same, but a different monster. I told my producers, “I really, really need to make this a period film.” Because it used to be a periodless film. 

FIlmmaker: I’m sure that made it a longer process to get made.

Dagatan: The funny thing is, I wrote the story way way back in 2015 after I made my short film, Sanctissima, because my mentor was saying I needed to make another short before venturing into feature films—so I wrote the script of In My Mother’s Skin in short form. One of my inspirations for the story is a French film—there are a lot of references now, but the first story that inspired In My Mother’s Skin was In My Skin, part of the [New French Extremity] movement of the early 2000s. I really liked the idea of self-cannibalism. So I wrote the short film, eventually forgot it, had the opportunity to make my first feature film, then I read the In My Mother’s Skin script again and was like, “Oh, it felt like there was something special there.”

Filmmaker: What was it like to vet your Singaporean and Taiwanese key staff?

Dagatan: One of the hardest parts for me was choosing my cinematographer. I needed to have a Singaporean cinematographer, and I was a bit anxious and skeptical about the language barrier and even the culture barrier when telling a Filipino story. They sent me a lot of reels, then I saw this really specific reel. He has this really raw feel throughout his films—very grounded, very realistic. I was really looking to light the film realistically. [In] that way I met Russell Martin and we set a first meeting for an hour, which turned into five hours. So we really clicked; we’re both really inspired by A24 films, so I liked jamming with him. Shooting the film, I realized, there’s no language or culture barrier because we’re making cinema now, a universal language. I’m very happy to work with him—he really helped me polish the film language throughout and how he lit it very fairytale-ish and painting-ish. He was very involved in going to locations and Manila to shotlist.

Filmmaker: I like that the blocking often justifies the mood in naturalistic lighting, like with how you block the fairy in the house away from the sunlight coming in from the doorway to make her look more ominous at a point when the morality of the character is no longer in question.

Dagatan: I wanted a contrast between the fairy’s chapel and the house. If we shoot something in the fairy chapel it should be very vibrant, lit well. I really want this place to be a kind of hope for Tala. When she goes back to her house it should be this very dark and hopeless place. That’s why she keeps coming back to that chapel, because it’s technically her hope.

Filmmaker: I must ask what it was like to work with Felicity Kyle Napuli, who really stands out as Tala, and working with your child actors in general.

Dagatan: She’s a theater actress in the Philippines; I think she played Matilda and was in The Lion King when it came to Manila. Right now, she’s really famous with a television melodrama [Maria Clara and Ibarra], so I’m very happy we got her. During production, it was hard because we only filmed for 16 shooting days and we have this law about shooting time with the kids. We got her for eight hours a day and her brother for four hours, so there were a lot of scenes with the younger brother I had to compromise due to time. 

Filmmaker: Was there any strategy to getting into Sundance? And what is this time like in between your film getting accepted and announced in the lineup and the premiere—when you’re being approached by distributors and sales agents?

Dagatan: Throughout the process of writing the film, pre-production and production—because it’s already a slim opportunity to get in—we didn’t think about [getting into Sundance] at all. We just did our best to make an effective story and film. We were so surprised that we got into Sundance. To be honest, we were a bit anxious about where the film would go after picture lock. When we heard about Sundance we were basically speechless, almost to the point where I was about to cry.

After we got in, it was a bit overwhelming for me. I made my first feature film in 2018, and now it’s been four years since I’ve experienced this. When we got in, I was overwhelmed by a lot of people messaging me, and I don’t know how to reply. I kept asking my producers how I should reply. They said, “Just chill. We’ll work on that.” After watching the film in my house before New Year’s with my family, I felt something. I don’t know what it was. But I told [my family], “Even if we don’t get into Sundance or wherever, I’m really proud of my team pulling off something like this.” We watched the story grow into this person who was different than who I envisioned.

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