DIRECTOR: Iris K. Shim

CAST: Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, MeeWha Alana Lee, Tom Yi

RUNNING TIME: 83 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A Korean-American mother (Oh) becomes haunted by the fear of turning into her mother…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

The Korean wave of pop culture has certainly washed over Western shores in recent years, with K-pop bands like BTS dominating the music charts, shows like Squid Game driving viewership on streaming platforms, and of course movies like Parasite going on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It also seems to have enabled writer-director Iris K. Shim to make her feature debut with Umma (literally “mother” in Korean), which uses certain traditions from both Korean culture and horror movies to explore the all-encompassing topic of harsh mother-daughter relationships.

Her results, however, don’t exactly pan out as well as she may have hoped, for it leans too heavily on familiar genre territory and has such little to actively say about her main topic for it to leave any kind of significant dent.

The film mostly takes place on a small, isolated farm where Korean-American woman Amanda (Sandra Oh), traumatised by the oppression and abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother (MeeWha Alana Lee), lives alone with her teenage daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart) in a house that runs no electricity, on account of Amanda’s fear of it. The two live an idyllic existence together, making honey from their beekeeping which they sell to local store owner Danny (Dermot Mulroney), but everything is uprooted when Amanda’s Korean uncle (Tom Yi) suddenly arrives to tell her that her mother has died, and that he has brought her remains with him in a suitcase. Thus begins a psychological – and eventually supernatural – battle that Amanda must face, where she desperately tries to avoid turning into “Umma” for the sake of her own daughter.

Although it boasts Sam Raimi as a producer (who, instead of his usual Ghost House Pictures production company, produces under the newer “Raimi Productions” label, which apparently gives horror filmmakers around the world a platform to create their own stories), Umma is far too light on its horror feet to even be worthy of the director’s presence. The film simply isn’t scary, relying far too much on overused tropes and conventions from the loud musical stinger that appears every time something spooky happens, to the fake-out dream sequence (in fact, the movie opens with that exact trope), to land any fresh reactions from the viewer. Occasionally there will be a creepy shot of a figure sitting still in the dark with nothing playing over it, but then it’s ruined by sudden flashes of lightning and, of course, a musical stinger. It’s also one of those horror movies where the threat is so miniscule that nobody in its limited six-person cast even comes close to being severely hurt, let alone killed horrifically. Not every horror movie needs to have bloodshed, but there could at least be some kind of menace that makes you fear for certain characters’ safety, and there never really is, since it is so small-scale and insignificant to these people’s lives in the long-term.

As for how Shim tries to incorporate aspects of Korean sensibilities into her horror film, namely the strict and repressive parenting skills that Sandra Oh’s Amanda must face, it boils down to nothing you haven’t seen in other movies featuring Asian-American protagonists and their wildly disapproving mothers. I get that it’s part of the tradition within certain Asian cultures, but why are the mothers in these movies always so cold and cruel towards their Americanised offspring? Seriously, this trope is everywhere from Crazy Rich Asians to as recently as Pixar’s Turning Red (which, incidentally, is the better movie featuring Sandra Oh as a wildly unhinged mother battling her own traditions), and Umma doesn’t do a whole lot to shed that particular convention either. In fact, it offers a slightly more extreme case because everything we learn about Amanda’s mother and how she treated her child is nothing short of abhorrent, but there is still an attempt to humanise her by the end which, when we learn a bit more about her own insecurities, makes her abuse seem so much more unnecessary and harsh. Shim certainly tries to give her themes stronger resonance, but in a movie that is already lacking in its horror department, there’s not a lot else she can do with a number of her undercooked ideas.

At least Sandra Oh seems to be having fun as she inevitably gets crazier and crazier, but her maternal outbursts don’t even come close to similar ones in The Babadook or Hereditary, with the lack of a genuine threat hampering her all-out craziness somewhat. She does what she can, but ultimately Umma is just too lame of both a horror film and an attempt to use genre conventions to explore certain aspects of Korean cultures. It’s sad when the recent Pixar movie is way better at handling these types of cultural themes and often terrifying repercussions than the Sam Raimi-produced horror flick.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Umma is a largely lame exercise in combining familiar horror tropes with a study into Korean maternal practises, which works on neither end because the movie isn’t scary enough to justify its heavy-handedness, nor does it dive deep enough past stuff we’ve already seen before to say anything about its main topic.

Umma will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 25th March 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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