Written and Directed by Iris K. Shim
Starring Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, MeeWha Alana Lee, Tom Yi
If one is looking for a well-acted but somewhat abbreviated exploration of intergenerational guilt, they could do worse than Umma. The story starts with Soo-Hyun (Oh), a woman who stayed in the U.S. after her mother (Lee) went back to Korea. There are hints of abuse, includling electrocution. Years later, we see her grown as Amanda, living on a farm with no electricity, raising chickens and bees for honey with her daughter Chrissy (Stewart).
As Chrissy reaches the end of her high school, things are good. Chrissy has been homeschooled. Amanda and her daughter are each other’s best friends, and the honey from their bees is sold at a nearby store, run by their only friend Danny (Mulroney). Then after a thunderstorm, Chrissy finds her mother huddled in the corner of her bedroom.
Soon after, Amanda encounters her Uncle (Yi), who informs her that her mother died and is very disappointed that her Soon-Hyun was not there to help give her a proper burial. This ensures that her mother will stay with her as a sort of curse. He gives Amanda a suitcase with her mother’s ashes, along with the things with which she wants to be buried.
The curse takes place over a series of images and jump scares. This film is more about guilt and the damage a parent can do to their child when they leverage guilt upon them. This type of damage begins to form between Amanda and Chrissy.
The story feels more like a meditation of putting the past to rest, within oneself if not for someone else. Chrissy has a parallel existence to her mother, and if there is no cruelty between them, oppression is easy enough to piece together by the time Chrissy meets someone outside of her circle.
The scares in Umma are not so prevalent as they are insinuated. If one doesn’t go into the film expecting typical horror, the film is easy enough to enjoy. The restraint is easy enough to enjoy if one understands the real purpose behind the story. Sandra Oh is typically excellent, and this film is no exception. The surpise is Stewart, who holds a real presence with Oh. Their scenes feel the chemistry of a mother and daughter, rather than two actresses playing a part.
If there is a complaint to the film, it lies with the brevity. The tension doesn’t reach more than about a 4 out of 10, even if there are some spectacular sequences. It’s incredibly short and feels there needs to be more of a fleshing out for the conclusion to really take hold.
(***1/2 out of *****)