Umma (Korean for mother) is interesting on both a plot and cultural level in that Korean elements are front and center of this horror movie. Horror films that depict Asian culture, like The Ring or The Grudge, usually focus on Japan as a setting and focal point, but Umma‘s focus on Korean traditions offers a different perspective on what constitutes horror. Although there are glimmers of brilliance just below its surface, Umma has a difficult time finding its footing. It never seems to be sure if it’s a horror film or a familial drama. Both elements exist, but they don’t mesh as well as writer-director Iris K. Shim might have intended. Ultimately, Umma isn’t disappointing because it’s bad (because it’s definitely not) but because it’s a severe case of wasted potential.
The film follows single mom Amanda (Sandra Oh) and her daughter, Chrissy (Fivel Stewart), as they live quiet lives away from technology, big cities, and the stressors that come with them. Everything seems to be relatively peaceful for the pair until Amanda’s uncle arrives from Korea, bearing the news that her mother has died—as well as her cremated remains. But Amanda wants nothing to do with them, or the unpleasant and painful memories of her childhood that her mother’s ashes begin to stir up. From there, Amanda becomes convinced that her mother is somehow reaching out from beyond the grave to torture her.
From there, the film raises some interesting questions. Why does Amanda believe that her mother has returned? Why is she extremely adamant about refusing her mothers remains? And why is she averse to all things technologically modern and electric?
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The answers come eventually, but the most interesting parts of the film are in the relationship between Amanda and Chrissy. Amanda has a difficult time cutting the cord and letting her daughter live her own life, independent from her mother, while Chrissy has a hard time trusting Amanda to be honest with her about their past. In these parts, at least, Umma is successful, and proves that Shim knows that characters with secrets make for a compelling start to a story. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Sarah Paulson thriller, Run, that also focuses on secrets in a mother-daughter relationship (albeit more deeply). The performances from Oh and Stewart are fine, but the screenplay doesn’t give them much meat to sink their capable teeth into.
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The supernatural elements don’t fare as well. There’s lots of Oh and Stewart slowly walking around their darkened farmhouse, quick glimpses of the entity haunting them, and sequences that serve to jolt you awake rather than unnerve or frighten. In terms of scares and tension, Umma is fairly low on the scale. You probably won’t have trouble sleeping afterwards. Which is a shame because the bones of a much more interesting film (and ghostly entity) are present. It almost seems like Umma would’ve been more successful as either a terrifying horror feature or a familial drama (there are some juicy plot threads about Amanda’s childhood that could’ve been even more successful had they been given the time to further develop). The mixing of both doesn’t allow either to really shine.
It’s interesting that the film uses its ghost as a metaphor for generational abuse (and a parent’s fear of continuing the cycle), but Umma‘s main conceit is unfortunately underutilized. It almost feels as though it (with a trim runtime of 83 minutes) would’ve been better suited as part of a horror anthology feature or an episode of American Horror Story. It’s not armchair-clenching horror by any means, but the successful mother-daughter relationship at its core shows that its heart is in the right place.
Umma is available on Blu-ray on May 24th.