Umma - New Release Review
Director: Iris K. Shim
Starring: Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney, Tony Yi, Odeya Rush
Written by: Iris K. Shim
Produced by: Zainab Azizi, Sam Raimi
Cinematography by: Matt Flannery
Original Score by: Roque Baños
When the remains of her deceased mother arrives from Korea, Amanda becomes haunted by the thought that she may be turning into her Umma.
Family trauma has always been a part of the horror genre to some degree. The idea of a dysfunctional family being thrust into a spiralling nightmare has produced some of the genre's best efforts from 'Hereditary' (2018) to 'The Babadook' (2014) to 'A Tale of Two Sisters' (2003) and beyond. 'Umma' is the latest horror entry to deal with one’s own inner demons about family conflict and the fear of loneliness.
Amanda (Sandra Oh) is living a reclusive life with her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) on their off-the-grid farm. Amanda works as a beekeeper, along with rearing chickens. Both live without any sort of technology, as it could be dangerous for Amanda’s “illness”. One day Amanda’s uncle (Tony Yi) arrives, having brought her recently deceased Umma (mother in Korean) remains. Amanda had been estranged from her for many years. Something terrible happened between the two and before long she sees apparitions of her mother as she gradually confronts her past trauma.
Whilst the film does not work on every level, losing its nerve and going into the usual territory of jump scares, I did enjoy it. Firstly the film does a fine job in steeping its DNA in Korean horror. There are sequences at the beginning of the film when 'Umma' is being discussed, in which her malevolent spirit manifests itself into the background. Her spirit continues to lurk throughout the shadows until she fully emerges with a terrifying agenda. Director Iris Shim understands the subtlety of having ghostly apparitions creeping into frame to taunt and scare. It’s a shame that the film chooses to abandon these more unnerving factors, in favour of more typical jump scares.
I found the first half of the film to be the creepiest and most interesting. Sandra Oh, who is already a highly respected and established star, brought such depth and emotion to her role as Amanda. I genuinely believed her fear and trauma. Her portrayal of someone who is broken by her past and running from the present is something I connected with. Fivel Stewart was equally fantastic as her daughter Chris. Her journey from being someone alone/lost like her mother to becoming a person more brave and determined was fantastically played. There were some nice cameos from Dermot Mulroney and Tony Yi as Sandra’s friend Danny and her Uncle.
I found the film's colour palette very intriguing. In the beginning the film has blazingly bright colours. When the horror comes into play the lighting shifts from bright colours into dark blues, greys and black. Matt Flannery's cinematography really helped to evoke the right balance of emotion and horror. The score was a highlight for me too. Roque Baños López knows how to incorporate those creeping musical cues that really get under your skin.
The most interesting aspect about 'Umma' is the tragic backstory of a daughter's broken relationship with her mother. We’ve seen these dynamics between mother and daughter/son before and one of the films strongest characteristics is the theme of loneliness. Amanda’s constant fear of becoming her mother has made her into a shell of a human being. Her relationship with her own daughter is beginning to show cracks. This is where the real horror is. The fear of being alone in life.
The film’s cycle seems to be almost hereditary (no pun intended). Amanda’s broken down relationship with her mother due to her obsessions with keeping Amanda to herself runs deeply between Amanda and Chris, even if Amanda is unaware of her unintentional actions. I feel like 'Umma' would have benefited greatly if Iris Shim opted for a much more bleak psychological horror/drama, in the vein of Jee-woons 'A Tale of Two Sisters'. I found Shim’s use of Korean traditions and ideologies, like the rituals, helped to give the film a real sense of identity. I’m delighted that Shim didn’t shy away from her own heritage.
For the most part 'Umma' is a fun horror film. It begins quite promising with creepy imagery and an atmosphere of dread before falling into the usual Hollywood machine of jump scares and losing what was making the picture so terrifying in the first place.
- Joe Lennon