By: E. L. King
UMMA explores the complexities of mothers and daughters, toxic relationships, the fear of abandonment, and inherited trauma. There are light spoilers ahead. Written and directed by Iris Shim, with Sam Raimi producing, the film follows Amanda (Sandra Oh), a Korean immigrant and single mother, who lives on a secluded farm with her daughter Chrissy “Chris” (Fivel Stewart). They are almost completely isolated from the outside world, keeping bees and selling honey. Amanda has homeschooled and sheltered Chris for most of her life in a futile to keep her close. The two share an intense bond, that for Amanda stems from deep-rooted trauma.
As a child, Amanda was abused by her mother, locked in a room, and punished with electrified wires for running away or misbehaving. When Chrissy was an infant, fearful of becoming her mother and repeating abusive habits, Amanda shut off the electrical box under her house. Determined to prevent the atrocities she suffered from happening to Chris, she also concocts a lie about a sensitivity to electronics to ensure they can live an electricity-free life.
Amanda has suppressed her childhood trauma. Her uncle arrives from Korea, to deliver her Umma’s (Korean for mother) ashes in the hopes that she will perform a Jesa ceremony to put her mother’s soul to rest. Her uncle explains that Amanda’s mother cried out for her as she died, triggering Amanda’s fear and anxiety response to her trauma. She hears echoes of the abuse she suffered, her mother’s voice whispering in her ear, visions of her mother’s ghost, and waking nightmares. I believe that the ghost of her mother and the haunting aren’t reality, but a psychological manifestation causing delirium and manic delusions.
Amanda is suffering from post-traumatic stress that is compounded by the discovery that Chris wants to leave for college. Amanda fears that she will be abandoned which only amplifies her desire to keep Chris close, even if it means fracturing their bond. She projects her fear onto their relationship, and the more she fights against the dissolution of their co-dependency, the more toxic their relationship becomes. This in turn mirrors Amanda’s relationship with her mother, and causes her acute distress. It isn’t difficult to relate to having a complicated and dysfunctional relationship with your mother. Chris needs to assert her independence, breaking free from the claustrophobic isolation of the farm, feeling othered, and her mother’s somewhat suffocating love. Moving away to attend college is a logical way to escape her situation and an attempt to do so without hurting her mother’s feelings.
UMMA doesn’t fail to communicate any of its core themes, but they are muddied by the film’s lack of tension, and poorly executed jump scares. There’s a little too much going on with the way the haunting is represented, which often broke my ability to immerse myself in the narrative. Certain cliches and cultural stereotypes, including the appearance of a Kitsune or Gumiho were perplexing at best. In Korean mythology, the nine-tailed fox is an evil seducer of men, whereas, in Japanese folklore, it is an evil fox with paranormal abilities that can shapeshift into human form. The fox seems meant to symbolize Umma (MeeWha Alana Lee) but is a poor addition to the film’s third act. Oh delivers a stunning performance as the tormented Amanda, her portrayal of anguish and fear is easily believed, while the other performances leave much to be desired.
While the supernatural horror film is a mediocre missed opportunity, its themes make it worth a single viewing. Audiences shouldn’t expect a film that will instill terror, but one that uses its horror elements to explore putting what haunts you to rest. UMMA is now in theaters and available to rent on digital On Demand.