Umma Review: A modern ghost story with solid scares and story
Writer/director Iris K. Shim’s feature directorial debut, Umma, offers some strong scares within its personal horror story, but struggles to maintain its strength throughout.
Shim establishes a unique environment in Umma as it follows Korean immigrant Amanda (Sandra Oh) living on her secluded farm with her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) without modern technology. While living “tech-free” has built a close bond between Amanda and Chris as they maintain the farm and their beekeeping business, it has also caused some silent friction in their relationship that’s allowed many secrets to form. Chris, for instance, secretly desires to move away to form her own life, largely because growing up without modern technology has made her an outcast to people her age. Amanda has even more buried secrets that are much darker and tied to a traumatic upbringing she tries to hide from Chris.
Due to electric shock abuse Amanda suffered when she was young, there’s no electricity allowed on the farm, so much so that visitors must turn their phones and cars off when they arrive, otherwise she suffers from a PTSD-like shock. This ends up establishing an interesting sense of control Amanda maintains over her surroundings and as you learn a greater truth behind it, you almost wonder if it’s just another ploy to keep Chris by her side. Amanda’s secrets go much deeper than that though as she’s kept her former life with her Korean parents a secret from Chris, something she’s unable to continue doing once she receives an unexpected package.
Although Amanda wished to never see her abusive mother (MeeWha Alana Lee) again, she’s reunited with her when she’s informed of her death and given her ashes and possessions. Amanda already feels haunted by her mother, but the arrival of her ashes brings a darker presence into their home that threatens the stability of their livelihood. As Amanda’s mother’s possessions enter the house, there’s a greater shift into horror that very welcomed with the solid atmosphere and scares Shim provides.
The idea of Amanda’s farm not having electricity causes characters to use candles to see in the dark making for an organically creepy environment. Some of the jump scares and suspense-building work well in creating a tense atmosphere that’s building towards a horrifying result. The constant use of dream sequences can get kind of old, but they do lead to some great moments of Amanda seemingly out of her own control, a prevalent factor as the film goes on. Umma’s main horror of Amanda becoming her mother is an interesting take on possession that takes new meaning as Amanda begins to confront her past.
Umma’s horrors don’t always pan out in the film’s favor though as some elements are overused to the point where they lose their scare strength. While the visage of Amanda’s mother in her traditional garb and mask are creepy at first, the more you see it, the less scary it becomes. Frankly, when the film relies on more physical entities, it doesn’t hit the same marks as some of its more suspense driven sequences or subtle surprises. The same can be said for Umma’s story as it shows some great potential that can be undercut by some of its shortcomings.
The build-up of Amanda slowly becoming more like her mother is great and the eventual details we learn about their relationship leads to an intriguing and grounded immigrant horror story. Even some of the relationship conflicts between Amanda and Chris can be strong, but the film does like to repeat plot points constantly without much changing. The idea of creating a mystery around Amanda’s past doesn’t really work because the details are basically given to viewers creating little shock value out of what Chris eventually learns. It also never feels like we make much progress with Chris uncovering parts of her mother’s past since she doesn’t push hard enough for her mother to reveal things and at times, it can feel like that plot point is being overshadowed by another. Chris and Amanda’s battle over Chris’ desires to leave tends to play out in expected ways and the film doesn’t utilize its side characters well enough to create more perspective around Amanda and Chris’ relationship. Also, despite strong performances from Oh and Stewart, their tone in some scenes can be a little over the top or suddenly aggressive in a way that isn’t fitting.
Umma is a solid horror flick with Shim showing some strong potential in some of the story and horror elements she provides with this haunting family ghost story but isn’t always consistent in maintaining its strengths.