Umma hits theaters on March 18, 2022.
March seems to be the month for motherhood for Asians in film and TV. With Turning Red and pachinkoboth focusing on mother-daughter relationships, out this month, it seems fitting for Umma, the Korean word for mother, to be released too. And while its ideas of generational trauma are scary, Umma unfortunately isn’t, despite Sandra Oh doing her best with an underwhelming script.
Umma tells the story of Amanda (Sandra Oh), an electrophobic beekeeper living off the grid with her teenage daughter, Chrissy (Fivel Stewart). They’re the best of friends – doing everything together, including beekeeping, raising chickens, and reading books. But all that changes when Amanda’s uncle from Korea visits with the remains of her umma, who Amanda had abandoned years prior. He tells her that she must give her mother respect through a traditional Korean ceremony or else she will never rest. Shaken by the encounter, Amanda begins to have visions of her mother and flashbacks of the abuse she endured, which caused her to have this fear of electricity. The traumatized Amanda refuses to honor her dead mother, which causes Umma’s spirit to slowly consume Amanda and turn her into the woman she dreaded the most.
Written and directed by Iris K. Shim in her first feature, Umma is ambitious as it tries to use cultural and sociological storytelling to create a stirring horror film, but fails the genre with its choppy editing and abrupt direction. It attempts to foster fear through standard horror trappings: the ominous use of insects, creepy masks, eerie silent moments, and the common string-violin sound-ups. Unfortunately, Umma, at its core, lacks the tension and suspense needed for trepidation. It’s only through Oh’s performance that we see some sort of terror as Umma consumes Amanda, but the camera never lingers long enough to make it memorable.
It is smart, however, that the film focuses on the generational trauma and guilt found in many Asian families, especially between immigrants and their first-generation children. Amanda is granted complexity with a monologue in which she reveals some understanding of the struggles her abusive mother went through, even though she knew she couldn’t live with her anymore. The most terrifying part of the film is the idea of confronting the childhood trauma, her overbearing mother, and the need to break away from Eastern traditions, all while not forgetting your identity. It veers away from horror and more into psychological thriller, at times; is it all in Amanda’s head, due to the generation burden that’s been passed down?
Though the symbolism and potential interpretations are deep, it sometimes feels overstuffed, as there ends up being zero explanation for some of the imagery. For example, one of the visions that Chrissy sees is of a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox, eating one of their chickens. Unless you’re familiar with Korean folklore, you’ll have no idea why this is included.
Oh does her best with the script and is fantastic in finding the culpability in the character as she deals with the emotional damage from her childhood and wanting to keep her daughter close. Stewart is likewise impressive, showing her conflict between wanting to stay with her mother “like a good daughter” and wanting to leave the nest. However, despite their believable chemistry, the relationship never feels complete, instead playing it safe with a swift, predictable conclusion. The film tries hard to fit societal and cultural depth into a horror piece, something that’s been proven in the past to be more than possible, but its lack of explanation of its own references keeps them from being frightening.