Brant Lewis calls Umma a by-the-numbers ghost story with a shining performance from Sandra Oh.
Iris K. Shim’s directorial debut Umma was a film on my radar due to Sam Raimi's involvement as a producer and its terrifying trailer. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver any effective scares, and its plot, lack of realistic stakes, and heavy exposition didn't resolve my issues with it. The anticipation and excitement to view the film quickly dissolved during my screening.
Amanda (Sandra Oh) is a Korean immigrant who lives on an isolated farm with her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart), where they work as beekeepers and live off the grid without electricity. Their peaceful lives are interrupted when Amanda's Uncle (Tom Yi) arrives from Korea with the ashes and belongings of her mother (MeeWha Alana Wee). It's worth noting that Umma is Korean for Mother. As soon as the remains enter their lives, the angry spirit attempts to shape Amanda into the monstrous version of her mother that she’s feared since childhood.
The film's exploration of intergenerational trauma, abuse, and heritage was a concept that I loved, but Shim never fully lifts them off the ground. Instead, the themes are underutilized, existing only as a surface-level set dressing. This results in Umma lacking a unique identity. I wish that Shim had delved into those themes more deeply. There's a lot to be explored that Shim seems to do nothing with.
The scares in Umma are few and far between. I felt no sense of fear throughout my viewing, and whenever a scare occurred, it simply didn’t have enough force to land. While a horror film doesn’t require intense scares for its message to be effective, I was set up to receive them and was left dissatisfied. I enjoyed the film’s eerie imagery, but it did not significantly build any tension. One scene depicts Umma’s spirit engulfing Amanda in multiple undead hands, but it doesn’t amount to anything. The horror elements exist purely as an aesthetic for the story to cloak itself in. The moments of intense terror often came off as unintentionally humorous drawing my attention away from the more profound elements of the film. I found it quite distracting.
The stakes also stay pretty flat, never putting the characters in real danger. Amanda and Chris aren’t fighting for survival so much as dealing with a minor annoyance. In a moment intended to raise the tension, Chris and Amanda trade emotional barbs before slapping each other. I laughed at the exchange rather than feeling shocked. The pacing was also an issue. The characters deliver long monologues describing their feelings which failed to hold my attention. Amanda describes her mother and the abuse she suffered from her. The framing of the moment prevented me from connecting with it. The monologues force the emotions to be purely surface level instead of deepening any understanding of the dynamics of Chris and Amanda’s relationship. The monologues dictate how the viewer should feel rather than allowing emotional connections to the narrative to come naturally.
Sandra Oh’s performance is the film's highlight. She conveys Amanda’s pain and trauma brilliantly despite the audience only being given a hint of her backstory in the film’s opening. The film did have excellent costume design. Leah Butler, who previously worked on Annabelle: Creation (2017), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021), brought her distinct talents to create a truly memorable dark spirit with the ghost of Umma.
Ultimately, Umma is a mixed bag that some will enjoy and others won’t. I sincerely wish that Shim had embraced the film’s horror elements a bit more. At the very least, I was happy to have more Korean representation within the horror genre, even if the thrills and chills failed to excite me.