Writer/Director Iris K. Shim’s feature debut, Umma, works as a rare example of a movie that would’ve been better served without the horror. Themes of cultural identity, heritage, abuse, complex mother-daughter relationships, and generational abuse present fertile ground for exploration and conflict. It gets neglected, buckling under the weight of conventional horror cliches, ineffective jump scares, a lack of tension, and disjointed storytelling.
Amanda (Sandra Oh) lives a quiet, simple life on a rural farm with her teen daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart). She’s a first-generation Korean American who’s carved out a successful life for herself selling the honey that she harvests with Chrissy. She’s also disconnected from the world, save for local shop owner and friend Danny (Dermot Mulroney). That’s by design; a traumatic past caused Amanda to turn her back on her family, specifically her abusive umma (mother). The residual trauma means that Amanda refuses to allow electricity in her vicinity, making for a sheltered, off-grid existence. Then her uncle shows up one day with her mother’s remains, warning her to honor her ancestry and give umma a proper burial lest she angers her mother’s spirit. But Amanda’s insistent on ignoring it until it festers and threatens to take control.
Umma consistently introduces fascinating ideas but never knows what to do with them in the genre space. Amanda’s rejection of her heritage and raising her daughter wholly removed from it makes for a compelling topic, but Shim struggles to marry it to horror. In place of a steady progression, Umma instead offers confusing, choppy edits and clunky scene transitions that disorient. Amanda goes from doting mother to crazed and back again in a blink, without much of a trigger. To her credit, Oh gives it her all regardless. Shim mistakes shrieking music cues for tension building, and the haunted house jump scares are by the book and stale. A quick rush of a ghastly figure here, or ghostly figures lurking in the shadow, serves as the only fleeting moments to indicate why Amanda goes from well-adjusted to completely unhinged.
Shim’s heavy focus on the conventional horror cliches means that the most exciting ideas get underdeveloped to a detriment. Fleeting mentions of gwishin or visions of a nine-tailed gumiho never get explained. These nods to a richer, unexplored mythology tease the potential for what might have been.
That restraint extends to the characters, too. Thanks to the flashback opening, we know from the outset why Amanda’s haunted by her past and why she harbors a visceral aversion to electricity. We know she loves her daughter and that Chrissy’s finally coming to an age where she’d like to leave the nest. Beyond that, though, Shim struggles to flesh them out and develop them further, which sums up Amanda’s arc. When the final confrontation arrives, it ends with a quiet whimper and a “that’s it?”
There’s a very intangible quality about Umma. The ideas and core takeaways are easy to grasp, but the execution falls flat. Shim attempts to dovetail Chrissy leaving mom behind with mom finally facing her haunted past but makes that haunting literal with generic haunted house tropes instead. It results in a sparse story with great ideas but not much else.
Umma is out in theaters now.