Umma derives its title from the Korean word for “mother.” That's appropriate, as the story is all about a vengeful mama making life difficult for her daughter from beyond the grave. Writer/director Iris K. Shim introduces cultural ideas into her paranormal chiller, setting it apart from other, similar films. The approach works to a point but is ultimately undone by a disjointed plot. Still, she's a filmmaker to watch, and the movie deserves credit for having ambitious goals.
Amanda (Sandra Oh) lives a life of isolation, residing on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere. She and teenage daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) operate a large bee colony. A local store owner/family friend, Danny (Dermot Mulroney), helps them sell the honey from their bees on the internet. Amanda can't do that on her own, due to an odd paralyzing fear of electricity. Her quirks have limited Chris's social life. The teen has been homeschooled and now wants to go to college, a fact that terrifies Amanda.
One afternoon, Amanda is visited by her uncle. He comes with news that her abusive mother has died. He also gives her a suitcase packed with her mother's ashes, along with a few prized possessions. Immediately afterward, bizarre events start occurring. An apparition that looks just like “Umma” starts appearing. Amanda knows that her mom felt resentful when she abandoned her to escape the abuse, and it seems as though supernatural payback is coming. Part of that entails intermittently possessing Amanda to make her as hard on Chris as Umma was on her.
Umma dives into a few culturally relevant themes about the relationships between Korean mothers and daughters, as well as the hardships faced by Korean women forced to emigrate to America by their husbands. One of the most interesting things about the movie is that, to resolve the problem, Amanda doesn't have to find a way to banish her mom to the afterworld, as most pictures of this sort do. Instead, she has to find a connection and a sense of empathy. A whole backstory is created for the ghostly character that helps explain the motivations for her abusive behavior (without condoning or minimizing it, of course). The film asks us to consider how traumas can be passed down between generations.
Sandra Oh gives a very good performance, suggesting a sense of guilt on Amanda's part for running away from her mother. The actress similarly conveys the fear her character has at the thought of Chris going to college. She will feel abandoned just as her own mom did. All those ironies come through, thanks to Oh's nuanced work. Fivel Stewart is also good as the daughter who grapples with wanting to live her own life and feeling responsible for the parent she knows can't make it on her own.
For all those good qualities, Umma never quite gels in its storytelling. Running a brief 83 minutes, it feels like sections of the plot have been cut out. Certain revelations are never explained as fully as they should be. Others feel rushed through. On at least two occasions, characters we haven't met are prominently mentioned, as though their scenes were dropped. The result is that the movie has a lurching feeling. It's too choppy to generate the momentum needed to maximize the scary moments or make its themes hit as hard as they should.
Although it doesn't fully work, I can't entirely dismiss Umma. I appreciated the good factors to the same degree that I was disappointed by the weak spots. Horror fans might want to check it out as a DVD or Blu-ray rental, just to see Oh's performance.
Umma comes to Blu-ray and DVD on May 24 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Picture and sound quality on the Blu-ray are excellent. The only bonus feature is a digital copy of the film included in the pack.
out of four
Umma is rated PG-13 for terror, brief strong language and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 23 minutes.