Synopsis – Amanda and her daughter living a quiet life on an American farm, but when the remains of her estranged mother arrive from Korea, Amanda becomes haunted by the fear of turning into her own mother.
My Take – On paper, this new Sam Raimi-produced horror film from Iris K. Shim, who both wrote and directed here, has a lot going for it, in terms of compelling elements.
From inter-generational trauma to the complexities of mother/daughter relationships, the film initially aims to be going deeper into the exploration of such themes. With an adequate enough story line and a nice mixture of Korean and Western cultures thrown in for good measure. Plus it helps that it has employed an actress of Sanda Oh’s caliber to lead.
Yet, what’s most surprising is how resolutely cliché riddled, poorly paced and stale the final product is. A by the numbers film that employs plenty of genre tropes but not much in the way of originality.
To make matters worse, for a horror, it isn’t particularly scary, and throughout its slim, but slow, 83 minutes, the film just keeps piling on one missed-opportunity scene after the other, crying out for a ghoulish sense of humor or an audience-rattling jump. Hereby, wasting potential and ultimately fizzling out as just yet another horror flick.
The story follows Amanda (Sandra Oh), an electro-phobic Korean immigrant who escaped from her domineering mother (MeeWha Alana Lee) years ago and has been living off the grid with her teenage daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) making honey and raising chickens at a remote little farm.
With Danny (Dermot Mulroney), a friendly local who helps sell their honey online in exchange for bookkeeping work, being their only regular point of contact to the outside world.
However, their simple life is interrupted when Amanda’s Uncle (Tom Yi) from Korea manages to track her down in order to deliver the cremated remains of her recently deceased mother. Shaken by the sudden encounter of her past, shortly thereafter, Amanda starts seeing the ghostly, angry figure of her unsettled mother everywhere and begins to have visions of the abuse she endured. Slowly consuming her and turning her into the woman she has dreaded her entire life.
There’s no question that the setup is a clever one and themes will likely resonate with anyone who has suffered from strained relationships with their parents. Focusing on the generational trauma and guilt found in many Asian families, especially between immigrants and their first-generation children, here, Amanda is granted complexity with a monologue in which she reveals some understanding of the struggles her abusive mother went through, even though she knew she couldn’t live with her anymore.
However, director Shim’s script is predictable and only surface-level, never really digging deep into the weight of the generational trauma she desires to explore. It instead contains at least five scenes where one character stands in front of another and delivers exposition about their past or current feelings. Potentially exciting elements, like Amanda being scared of electricity, feel like they are thrown haphazardly into a blender.
And as the film spends so much time attempting to explore its themes, it forgets that it is supposed to be an effective horror. Instead thrown in here are haphazard jump scares or fake-out build-ups just to keep the proceedings going but considering the run time, there’s not a lot to cling to here. The few jump scares that do show up are not very well orchestrated, even by this genre’s standards.
There’s no mystery, no imagery, no subtext, and between these glum confessions, the story generates an astonishing lack of momentum. It amounts to a list of things that have been, in other contexts, sufficiently scary: ghosts, masks, childhood trauma, and turning into the monster you once feared.
Nevertheless, Sandra Oh gives an impressive performance despite the weak material. Making her second turn in almost as many weeks as an overbearing Asian mom at risk of becoming her own mother, albeit this time more frighteningly than in Turning Red. Here, Oh does her best with the script and is fantastic in finding the culpability in the character as she deals with the emotional damage from her childhood and wanting to keep her daughter close.
Likewise, Fivel Stewart is impressive, showcasing her conflict between wanting to stay with her mother and wanting to leave the nest. In other thankless roles, Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, Tom Yi, and MeeWha Alana Lee are alright. On the whole, ‘Umma’ is yet another familiar and forgettable horror let down by its underwhelming script.
Directed – Iris K. Shim
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 83 minutes