The ‘creepy’ drone of cicadas inspired ‘In My Mother’s Skin’

Sundance premieres Filipino horror film

Kenneth Dagatan’s ‘In My Mother’s Skin’ at the Sundance Film Festival When and where: 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Holiday Village Cinemas 2 in Park City, and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29, at the Megaplex Theatres at The Gateway 6 in Salt Lake City Web:
Tala, played by Felicity Kyle Napuli, bows before the Cicada Queen, portrayed by Jasmine Curtis-Smith during scene from Kenneth Dagatan’s “In My Mother’s Skin,” an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The horror film is the only foreign-language entry in Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight program.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Epicmedia

“In My Mother’s Skin,” the only foreign-language entry in Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight program, sheds new light, or should that be darkness, on the term ‘creepy and crawly.”

Filmmaker Kenneth Dagatan, a Filipino writer and director, has added an Asian fairytale about a cicada queen to Midnight, which targets the horror and thriller genre.

The premise is simple.

“Stranded in the Philippines during World War II, a young girl finds that her duty to protect her dying mother is complicated by her misplaced trust in a beguiling, flesh-eating fairy,” according to the film’s description, and Dagatan serves it up with a captivating family saga, nighttime lighting and a soundscape centered around the drone of insects.

“The idea to use the natural sounds of cicadas came from my production designers, Carlo Tabije and Ben Padero,” Dagatan said. “The sounds of cicadas can be creepy, and when you live in a tropical country you hear them every night. So, I liked the idea.”

The idea metamorphosed during a discussion with one of the film’s sound designers, according to Dagatan.

“Taiwan has a lore about the cicada being a messenger to the spirit world,” he said. “So we were able to pinpoint the parts of the film where we needed to hear a specific sound of the cicada.”

Jasmine Curtis-Smith, known for her critically-acclaimed performance in Hannah Espia’s 2013 film, “Transit,” gives the cicada queen wings.

One of the first questions Curtis-Smith had for Dagatan was about the cicada queen’s face and voice because in horror, especially in films from Asia, audiences are used to the pale, drawn-out look and low, throat crackles, she said.

“With this film, we decided to keep the modulation of the voice calm, because the character has to be endearing,” she said. “We also wanted to see her face as almost porcelain. So, all the movement and facial expressions were subtle.”

Curtis-Smith found herself worried and self-conscious about those requirements.

“I’m so used to portraying human characters, and with this role, I had to be more collective and persistent with the modulation when saying my lines,” she said.

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The film’s setting — the Philippines in 1945 at the end of World War II — adds to the tension. Any history buff can attest to the rocky relationship the Philippines shares with Japan, even today.

“I had originally written the script of this film in 2015 as a short film, and I didn’t want to set it in the modern day,” Dagatan said. “During the pandemic, my father shared war stories about my grandfather, who was a guerilla soldier during World War II.”

Dagatan heard about post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological impacts the war had on his grandfather.

“There was depression, isolation, and the claustrophobia of having the enemy outside your house,” he said. “It was the same thing that we were experiencing during the pandemic, and I called my producers and said, ‘Let’s set it in the 1940s to mirror what’s happening during the pandemic. But we decided to connect the same feelings with different monsters.”

The filmmaker, who was raised Catholic, also made sure to sprinkle religious imagery throughout the film.

“My intention for that was to show these characters looking for any kind of hope,” he said. “So, they pray to have the sense to survive.”

While religion ovearcs the whole plot, other symbols of hope fall under that umbrella, according to Dagatan.

For Tala, the main character played by Felicity Kyle Napuli, the hope is the cicada fairy. Tala’s younger brother Banyani, portrayed by James Mavie Estrella, finds his hope in a gun Dagatan said. 

“The theme of finding hope — bad, evil or good — is just to survive,” he said.

The setting, story and supporting characters wouldn’t have the effect they do if it weren’t for the young actors — Napuli and Estrella, said Curtis-Smith.

“The great thing about Felicity, who we call Kyle, is that she has that theatrical training,” she said. “She’s very attentive to her acting coach, who was on the set, and she takes direction easily. That willingness helped open me to how I could support her, and, at the same time see how she supports me. That’s so impressive for someone who was 15 when she shot the film.”

Estrella also brings a sense of strength to his role, even though Dagatan originally wrote it as a timid, weak crybaby.

“When I saw James Mavie Estrella, however, I saw that he has this strong persona with a pinch of innocence,” the filmmaker said. “I wanted to play around with that. So I revived the script for him.”
Dagatan and Curtis-Smith are still processing the fact that they and “In My Mother’s Skin” are at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

“This is a dream come true for us,” Dagatan said. “As a fan of horror films, I’ve watched a lot that came from the Midnight program, and here we are.”

Curtis-Smith is grateful to be cast in the film, which was recently acquired by Prime Video. 

“It wasn’t too long ago that we were just high school kids watching Sundance entries,” she said. “Being the only foreign language film in the section is major for us. And to be only the third Filipino film to make it into Sundance out of thousands of entries just doesn’t feel real.”

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