Wednesday June 7th, 2023
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Sundance 2023: Dim Dystopia in ‘Birth/Rebirth’ & ‘In My Mother’s Skin’

CairoScene editor-at-large and Tomato-meter-approved critic, Wael Khairy, reviews two of Sundance’s Midnight Selection films.

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Sundance’s 2023 Midnight Selection: Birth/Rebirth, In My Mother’s Skin

The Midnight Selection in Sundance is where the night owls of the festival rejoice. The section was conceived as a “social showcase of the most challenging but rewarding experiences from around the world, brought to you at the most arduous hour.” Most of the films screened here belong to the horror genre. In the past, some of the most significant horror films of our time made their debut here, including The Blair Witch Project, The Babadook, Hereditary, The Witch, It Follows, Speak No Evil, and Raw. This year features a very diverse selection, but I’ve yet to see a film that lives up to the calibre of the films I just mentioned. The first two screenings I attended were of Birth/Rebirth and In My Mother’s Skin.


The feature debut from writer-director Laura Moss, Birth/Rebirth, reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a modern audience. The film draws from the conceptual themes of the classic book by exploring humanity’s curiosity with life and death and our fascination with the possibilities of science. But while Frankenstein gave us a glimpse into the scientific community in the 1800’s, Birth/Rebirth transports us to the troubling world of modern medicine.

After the untimely death of a maternity nurse’s daughter, Forensic pathologist Rose (Mary Ireland) teams up with the grieving mother, Celie (Judy Reyes), as they attempt to bring Lila (A.J. Lister) back to life. Both women are constantly surrounded by inconsiderate male doctors and foolish drunkards roaming around bars looking for an easy hook-up. Watching Rose and Celia navigate this male-dominated world makes us root for their experiment, even though a sense of impending doom is constantly lurking around every corner.

This isn’t the first time a Frankenstein-inspired film has depicted the dangers of playing God. Nearly a decade ago, Alex Garland’s masterful Ex-Machina dabbled with the philosophical idea of artificial-intelligence exhibiting consciousness, and while Garland’s film immersed us in long stretches of philosophical dialogue, Moss and screenwriter Brendan J. O’Brien seem to be more interested in the ethics of the medical community.

As both women desperately try to revive the daughter, human anatomy becomes a playground for unethical post-mortem experiments. The film raises a lot of questions about the issue of consent in particular. In one scene, Rose lures a bystander into a bathroom stall for a sexual favour, and as soon as they are done with the deed, she scoops up his semen in a tube and forcefully takes a sample of his blood. In another sequence, Celie tricks a pregnant woman into believing there is something wrong with her pregnancy, just so she could retrieve fluids that she would use to reanimate her own daughter.

In fact, the film’s most horrific and violent moments are very medical in nature. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj does a great job in capturing the intrusiveness of medical procedures as they operate on the living and the dead. We get glimpses of scalpels, knives, needles and tubes being used in vivid detail. The themes of motherhood and childbirth seem a bit undercooked when compared to the film’s clever ideas on the potential hazards of medical advancements. The film also lacks in the scares department, especially when it comes to the child ‘monster’. Nonetheless, the real horror in Birth/Rebirth has less to do with the reviving of the dead, but rather the monstrosity of the living.

In My Mother’s Skin

In this grim fairy tale set against the backdrop of World War II, a young innocent girl wanders into the forest and stumbles upon a flesh-eating fairy who offers to help cure the child’s suffering mother. Sounds familiar? Kenneth Dagatan’s In My Mother’s Skin takes a few pages, scratch that, quite a few pages off Guillermo del Toro’s far superior Pan’s Labyrinth. This macabre fable from the Philippines shamelessly wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but falls short in capturing the imagination.

This is such a shame, because In My Mother’s Skin is almost flawlessly executed. It has all the elements of great craftsmanship from stunning makeup and visual effects, to painstakingly precise cinematography, whimsical art-direction, and an eerie soundtrack. What it lacks is emotional depth and a third act that actually goes somewhere. I was somehow reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

In the very last paragraph of Ebert’s review, he summed up how I felt about this film perfectly. He wrote, “Attending this new version, I felt oddly as if I were watching a provincial stock company doing the best it could without the Broadway cast. I was reminded of the child prodigy who was summoned to perform for a famous pianist. The child climbed onto the piano stool and played something by Chopin with great speed and accuracy. The great musician then patted the child on the head and said, ‘You can play the notes. Someday, you may be able to play the music.’”

Now to be fair, In My Mother’s Skin is not a shot for shot remake, and it does tread into a different direction towards the end, but it still feels like a mash of genre tropes I’m all too familiar with. There is one J-horror inspired scene that is genuinely creepy and nightmare inducing. Other than that, this gory political allegory drawing from ancient folklore has absolutely nothing new to say.