Ma poster“Lost or beguiled?” asks the strange talking tree at the centre of Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma in an opening which might as well be aimed at the audience as the confused little boy about to find himself on a very dark path indeed. In this fairytale world nothing comes without a price, but how much would you pay to maintain a connection fate has seen fit to sever?

Little Samuel (Kyle Espiritu), arm in a sling, cruelly tortures a dying crow before following another into a mysterious cave where he finds a lone tree, improbable in its vibrant greenery somehow illuminated from above. He touches it and its leaves cut him, before the tree raises its voice to tell him that there is “an end to every pain” but “every blessing comes with a price”. Running from the cave in fear, Samuel trips and discovers that his broken arm is now healed, but makes a shocking discovery on his return home. His mother seems to have become ill with a nasty hacking cough which later produces blood. When she haemorrhages over the dinner table, Samuel and his younger siblings have no idea what to do. Returning to the cave he assumes that the tree requires a sacrifice, “life for life”, and offers up the family’s pregnant cat pleading that his mother be returned to him, but the tree’s desires are deeper and darker. Ma returns, but in a different form.

After this short prologue, Dagatan pulls the focus to heavily pregnant, somewhat distracted, school teacher, Cecile (Anna Luna). Unlike Samuel and his family, Cecile seems to come from a comfortable background but is apparently single and living with her domineering mother (Susan Africa) who wants her to see a different doctor against Cecile’s own wishes. Gradually we learn that there is tension between Cecile and her mother’s younger European husband (Ian Curtis), while she is still deeply grief-stricken over her husband’s suicide. The two plotstrands begin to converge when Cecile decides she’s had enough of her mother and goes to stay with an old friend in her hometown.

While Samuel, a child after all, is prepared to go to great lengths to preserve his status quo through saving his mother, Cecile is far from secure in her impending motherhood. She wonders if her pregnancy tipped her husband over the edge, bristling at her friend Gelyen’s (Kate Alejandrino) claim that it wasn’t her fault with the words “we are all to blame”. Attempting to visit Samuel’s mother Lina (Glydel Mercado) who was in fact a childhood friend, the women too come across the cave, idly wondering if the legend behind it – that the ghost of a pregnant woman raped and killed by the Japanese during the war lurks inside, has been updated for a new generation.

Gelyen lives her life surrounded by religious icons but also suggests, perhaps jokingly, that as people around here are mostly Catholics they’d believe anything. In any case, the cave seems to have a particular meaning to the women surrounding a mysterious incident connected with Gelyen’s apparently missing brother and late father. The cave, a kind of womb itself, appears to feed on familial distress and emotional discord. It can relieve your burdens, but only at a price – the choice is yours should you decide to pay.

Then again, some things are supposed to pass and artificially reviving them might not be the best solution for anyone, not least the hollow simulacrum of a deceased loved one. Did Lina die because Samuel found the cave, did he pay for worrying that crow? Likewise, did Cecile’s husband die because of her childhood adventure? Perhaps the tree guided her here, engineering her inescapable guilt to reclaim what it to needs to live and prosper. Samuel does the unthinkable and drags his little siblings into his dark game, while Gelyen’s room full of religious icons are apparently no match for the ominous power of the natural world. Families are in a sense restored to a kind of satisfaction, but only through great personal sacrifice that alleviates the sense of guilt without offering the relief born of mutual forgiveness. Filled with a macabre sense of dread and gothic fatality, Ma is an ambitious debut from Dagatan which matches its beautifully conceived images with the bloody horror of grief-stricken desperation. 


Ma screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)