There’s a saying about how nobody wants to turn into their mother. That couldn’t be truer for the protagonist in Iris K. Shim’s directorial debut, Umma, which means “mother” in Korean. The film centers around Amanda (Sandra Oh) and her relationships with her daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart) and her mother (MeeWha Alana Lee), who she refers to as Umma. The story attempts to meld psychological horror with family drama. Although the film is anchored by a convincing performance by veteran actress Sandra Oh, it falls short of delivering its message in an innovative way.
Having suffered both physical and psychological abuse from her own mother as a child, Amanda grows up to become a fearful, overprotective single mother who is willing to do anything to keep Chrissy close and out of harm’s way. The two live on a farm cultivating beehives and running a honey business, isolated and self-protected in their own little bubble. Their only connection to the outside world seems to be Danny, an older man who helps them buy supplies and sell their honey jars. Amanda has shunned the use of all electricity due to her traumatic childhood experience of being repeatedly burned by the frayed wire of an old lamp, Umma’s sick form of punishment. Chrissy is ignorant of her mother’s background, and while she has been content with their simple lifestyle, she is becoming eager to explore the outside world as she approaches high school graduation. However, the mother and daughter’s idyllic lives are suddenly upturned by the arrival of Amanda’s uncle who comes bearing the news of Umma’s death. He delivers the ashes of Amanda’s recently deceased mother along with some of her valuables inside an old trunk, including a “hanbok,” a traditional Korean dress, and an ancestral mask. He reprimands Amanda for leaving her mother and instructs her to take care of her remains before promptly leaving. With Umma and her possessions on her estate, Amanda begins to relive her childhood horrors, memories that now appear to haunt her in the flesh. No matter where she stuffs the trunk away, whether in a closet or the basement underground, she cannot escape the demonic visions of her mother.
The first half of the film consists of vignettes of creepy, undead Umma haunting Amanda, but the short scenes don’t feel like they’re leading anywhere, so the attempt at heightening suspense never reaches an apex. Despite the eerie visuals and occasional jump scare, the story doesn’t escalate in a way that strikes the audience with the fear of any of the characters being in real danger. When Chrissy begins questioning her mother’s sudden strange behavior, Amanda refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem nor does she tell her daughter anything about Umma. When Amanda finds out that Chrissy is applying to college and intending to leave the following year, she becomes overly distraught to the point where she starts transforming into Umma. Sandra Oh delivers a solid performance in this role, both as Amanda and the possessed version of her, and she particularly shines in the monologues where she reflects on her childhood trauma. Alongside Sandra, Fivel Stewart plays a convincing rebellious daughter. Her scenes with her new friend River (Odeya Rush), who encourages her to explore the world and who she is outside of the farm, lend some hope and wholesomeness to the otherwise dark film.
We have seen recent explorations of the Asian mother-daughter relationship in films like Pixar’s Turning Red and A24’s Everything Everywhere All At Once. Umma, too, had the potential to offer a creative take on this topic by literally having the protagonist turn into a demonic form of her mother as a manifestation of generational trauma. However the film falls flat in its execution, relying too heavily on the trope of subtle ominousness popularized in the supernatural psychological horror films of the last decade and remaining shallow in its exploration of Amanda’s relationship with her mother. The film ends with Amanda confronting a ghostly vision of her mother and speaking up for herself, acknowledging the struggles that Umma faced as an immigrant but refusing to accept the abusive control her mother lorded over her all her life. Amanda and Chrissy then give Umma a proper Korean “jesa”, a memorial for dead ancestors. For a horror film, such a resolution seems contrived and anti-climactic, bringing a slow and underdeveloped story to an unfittingly happy ending.