Becoming your mother, through the inevitability of time and genetics, is a scary prospect for some, but in “Umma,” a woman must contend with being possessed by her mother and, along with that, years of abuse and generational trauma.
In Iris K. Shim’s debut film, Sandra Oh stars as Amanda, a Korean American woman who has escaped all semblance of her past and is raising a precocious daughter on a remote farm. Amanda and Chrissy (Fivel Stewart, “Atypical”) are as tight-knit as a mother and daughter can be; they read together, they work together, they hum together. On the farm, they harvest honey from a handful of bee colonies, which they package themselves and give to their friend Danny (Dermot Mulroney) to sell at his shop. It’s a steady, quiet life, but Amanda is haunted by memories of abuse at the hands of her mother (Meewha Alana Lee) — or her “umma,” in Korean.
One day, the peace on the farm is broken when Amanda’s uncle (Tom Yi, “Plus One”) comes bearing the news of her mother’s death. Amanda and her mother were estranged, and she wants nothing to do with her mother’s remains — but those remains want everything to do with her.
Her uncle warns that if not properly consecrated, her mother could become a “gwishin,” a ghost that has not yet fulfilled its purpose. Amanda, who hates and fears her mother, hides her mother’s trunk immediately; however, the longer her mother’s ashes and belongings stay in the farmhouse, the more tense and eerie things become. Doors rattle, curtains move, even the bees act up.
“Umma” is reverse-engineered to create its own scares — because Amanda was abused by her mother with a frayed wire, she believes that electricity makes her sick. Her house, therefore, runs without electricity. She and Chrissy often walk around after dark with candle-lit lanterns, the shadows coming to life around them. In search of a creepy cellar? What about an attic? Don’t fear: this house has both. Amanda’s off-the-grid lifestyle may dictate an environment without smartphones, but there’s no reason their home needs to be the creakiest house imaginable. (There’s no technical ban on WD-40.) Lightning storms, too, are common in their desert life, triggering nightmares.
Part of what makes “Umma” compelling, when it is compelling, is the way in which Amanda rejects her Korean heritage, which haunts her alongside her mother. Often, the most frightening imagery is her mother’s hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, and burial mask, both of which take on a life of their own whenever she isn’t looking. Her mother’s trunk is also adorned with a scarf featuring a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox, the type of animal that might cause mayhem on a small family farm.
Her mother struggled to assimilate to America, and in turn, Amanda has embraced all factions of American life (all except understanding what “going viral” is, it seems). What she fears, besides her mother, is anything specifically Korean. She doesn’t even want her daughter to know the language.
The most frightening part of “Umma” is not the ghostly apparition of Amanda’s mother, but Amanda herself. Under Shim’s direction, Oh’s Amanda is haunted and taut, an unpredictable force of nature. The real conflict of the film is not between Amanda and her umma, but Amanda and Chrissy, who is achingly eager to break out of the monotony of farm life and go to college. Bolstered by Danny’s niece River (the always great Odeya Rush), Chrissy begins to stick up for her own desires, only to meet her mother’s ire. (Or is it umma’s?)
It would be one thing if the film allowed Oh to scold her daughter with the type of brittle rage she’s known for harnessing. But as if to beat its viewer over the head with, say, a beehive, Oh’s face will instead often transform into her mother’s, a type of otherworldly possession, when berating her daughter. This is too obvious a metaphor, and the CGI is too haphazard, to be convincingly scary or effective. One of the best working actors with one of the most expressive faces in the medium stars in this film — let her go off the rails, already.
Modern horror gets flak for leaning too far into grief and trauma as a justification for its scares, and “Umma” leans a little too hard on both of these without going particularly deep. Amanda is haunted by her mother’s presence long before her remains show up, so the escalation often feels arbitrary. The film’s climax, too, is easily predicted (by the audience) and overcome (by the characters). If nothing else, “Umma” is a reminder that, when one is hiding from something (their past, their family, their trauma), the best thing to do is to step out of the dark and face it.
“Umma” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.