‘Umma’ has compelling ideas but falls short due to a restrained and disjointed script
Korean immigrant Amanda (Sandra Oh) and her homeschooled daughter Chrissy (Atypical’s Fivel Stewart) live a quiet life on a rural farm beekeeping and selling honey. They live without modern technology as Amanda claims to be “allergic” to electricity, and therefore rely on local shop owner and friend Danny (Dermot Mulroney) to sell their honey. Amanda is struggling with Chrissy’s desire to go off to college, but things get drastically worse when her uncle stops by and drops off the cremated remains of her recently deceased and estranged mother, whom she calls umma (“mum” or “mummy” in Korean). Amanda is confronted with memories of her abusive childhood as she is haunted by her mother’s ghost.
Amanda’s past was so traumatic that she completely abandoned her heritage, going as far as to not teach her own daughter Korean, which her uncle berates her for. The importance of cultural tradition and how this affects Koreans is a key theme, in addition to the more universal fear of becoming your mother. Written and directed by Iris K. Shim in her feature debut, with Sam Raimi as producer, Umma explores Korean folklore and culture, as well as generational trauma and guilt, but none of these themes are presented with much depth.
Umma has a tight script, which is excellent, but this is a film that would’ve benefited from a deeper examination of its characters in relation to its themes. Amanda and Chrissy do reconcile, but the characters aren’t fleshed out much beyond their starting points. The film does touch on how compassion for oneself and the circumstances of your abuser are key to healing and moving on, with the nuance that understanding this doesn’t excuse their actions or how they affected you.
The hauntings themselves begin eerily, often with umma in a spooky mask and hanbok lingering in the background, reminiscent of The Conjuring’s Nun, but this soon grows tired as it exhausts itself early on and doesn’t up to the scares delivered, for example, by said Nun. A single appearance from a kumiho (a “nine-tailed fox” from Korean folklore) also isn’t explained or explored further, allowing the film to yet again skim on what could’ve been a richer look at Korean legend.
Shim has compelling ideas but her script is too disjointed to make the landing her story deserved. Umma has the foundations but nothing is enough — not the themes, the character development, the scares, or even the pacing (though I will say the film went by quickly, due to the thin story). Had these key components been working together efficiently, Umma would have been an incredible horror from a fresh voice, so it’s sad to not see everything come together. It makes you wonder if the film could’ve excelled more as a drama, especially as Shim’s screenplay feels restrained, as though she had more to give but held back. Oh at least delivers one of the signature strong performances and it’s a treat to see her tackle horror, a rare genre for the veteran actor.
Umma was released in UK cinemas on March 25th, 2022. Still showing in select cinemas with limited screenings.