Catholic countries idolize motherhood better than anyone. They are also just as perversely aware of its dark, sinister manifestations. The poverty is spirit-crushing, but it is nothing compared to the malevolent spirit inhabiting the woods in Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.
This is the other Ma that makes Octavia Spencer’s psycho killer look relatively benign. As the film opens, Samuel and his younger brother and sister are alarmed by their mother Lina’s blood-spitting ill-health. When she dies, he makes a Faustian bargain with an evil thing found in an uber-archetypal tree in a suspiciously ominous cave to bring her back, but the initial results are not what he had in mind. The entity soon has him escalating from the family cat.
Meanwhile, the mega-pregger Cecile has returned to her childhood village to give birth following the death of her husband (an implied suicide). Back in the day, she was inseparable from her chums Lina and her host, the devout Gelyn. However, something rather nightmarish happened to them in a nearby cave, somewhat estranging the trio for years. Of course, anyone who has seen their horror movies knows there is no better pagan sacrifice than a pregnant woman.
In fact, Ma could well be a perfectly representative Filipino horror movie, combining grim sequences of desperate naturalism with utter gross-out provocations. Ma could possibly have the longest vomiting scene since Team America: World Police, but it is played direly straight. Dagatan and co-screenwriter Dodo Dayao also wear their Catholic sensibilities on their sleeve. What transpires is particularly disturbing, because we know and the characters understand these are acts of evil knowingly committed by the formerly innocent.
Young Kyle Espiritu is pretty darned chilling as Samuel. His performance is essentially a portrait of damnation. Likewise, it is nearly as disturbing to watch the even younger Alessandra Malonzo and Enzo Osorio take similar descents into madness and murder, as his junior siblings. Frankly, the adults have a hard time comparing to the youngsters’ homicidal horror chops.
Ma is a well-made film, but it is definitely a downer that never offers up any genre catharsis. Cinematographer Cesce Lee gives it a rich, golden aura, evoking a vibe of ancient, folkloric evil. However, it does not build to a crescendo comparable to Joko Anwar’s remake of Satan’s Slaves, a film that connoisseurs of Asian horror might find themselves remembering during Ma. Recommended for Filipino horror fans, Ma screens tomorrow (7/7), as part of this year’s NYAFF.