From Kenneth Dagatan’s opening image In my mother’s shoes, viewers are warned about what they’re looking for. It’s a vision of starving corpses, but as the camera pans left, something is feeding on them.
This scene takes place at the end of World War II in the Philippines. A young man named Aldo and his family are held captive by a band of Japanese invaders who hijack his mansion in search of a supposed gold reserve.
Aldo goes off alone in the middle of the night to get help, leaving his sick wife (Beauty Gonzalez) with their two children, a daughter named Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and a young son, Bayani (James Mavie Estrella). After a day, the first is sure that her father has been killed, and to sway his thoughts, she and her brother set out to look for him, but they encounter a strange but beautifully dressed woman in a dilapidated cabin.
Dagatan (Me–2018) draws a heavy amount from Hansel and Gretel At this point. But he infuses the tale with horrific images of a country at war, including its ghastly victims, their faces frozen in terror left to rot in the open air.
Also, unlike the Grimm’s tale, the antagonist is not a scary old witch, but a beautiful woman dressed in royal finery with a holographic winged fascinator highlighting her face. The film leans heavily towards Virgin Mary symbolism. Not quite a Guillermo del Toro creature creation, but no less unsettling.
The director teases his audience determined to keep them curious about the underdeveloped parts of the story. Some might call it a slow burn. For example, the sick mother is given a cure by her daughter – a gift she receives from the fairy – – but its effects are apparently malevolent and she seems to slowly become possessed over several days.
The film suggests that believing in something out of desperation might be comforting in the short term, but if that belief is only disguised as good, how mindlessly controlling is the belief? And is it too late to undo what has already been done? This is also a metaphor for war and greed, two of the film’s other arguments.
Just part of the horror of In my mother’s shoes comes from the mother’s gradual possession. The other is how young minds like Tala’s, when left to fend for themselves, often react impulsively without critical thought. This is in contrast to Disney homogenized world where children have the ability to drive without experience, face evil using alchemy, and survive dire situations, emerging mentally unscathed.
For our heroine Tala, just like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, the harsh universe he lives in suggests a path that leads to the realms of fantasy. But that world, useful in the short term, is equally corrupt, full of its own deceptive beasts.
What the In my mother’s shoes he makes painfully clear in his own narrative that religion, especially Catholicism and its precepts, mirror fairy tales and are full of blind faith. Tala’s sprawling home has alters dedicated to Catholic deities, but their protective power never materializes even as forces, both human and supernatural, wreak havoc upon them. Dagatan seems to be saying that evil is the only power that will show itself to people in real time, while faith makes up for it later.
In my mother’s shoes is a grand fairy tale steeped in by Guillermo del Toro influence. Beautifully framed landscapes are dimly lit in a blue-gray scale befitting a world filled with horror and tragedy.
Napuli gives Tala a false sense of resilience in her blind teenage ambition. She wants to be the force that saves her family, but she’s just wrong. As a young actress, this can be difficult to convey in live action, perhaps better suited for a Disney voiceover, but Napuli takes on the challenge with terrifying aplomb.
Dagatan (and we the viewer) know that his story is not headed for a Disney ending. His princess, bloodied and battered, had endured too much for that. In the final words of dialogue before the credits roll, this film projects its wisdom onto the audience, but like most deceptive fairy tale endings, there really is no Happily Ever After.
In my mother’s shoes is part of the Sundance Film Festival 2023 lineup.