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‘Umma’ Review: Generational Trauma Gets Ghostly in Horror Film Haunted by Too-Big Ideas

Sandra Oh can't escape the long (and scary) arm of the past in Iris K. Shim's alternately impressive and muddled feature directorial debut.

umma movie

“Umma”

Sony

Amanda doesn’t want to turn into her mother. No, you don’t quite understand, she really doesn’t want to turn into her mother. As explained away during the jam-packed opening sequence of Iris K. Shim’s “Umma” — and then explained again and again by repeated flashbacks, spooky voiceover, and a generous dollop of second-act exposition — Amanda’s (Sandra Oh) entire adult existence has been built around her desire to avoid her mother’s mistakes. And that opening sequence makes plain that Amanda’s fears are justified: Her mother (MeeWha Alana Lee) used to abuse young Amanda, often using live electricity to burn and shock her only child. That’s where this haunted house chiller about generational trauma begins, an early promise the scary — and occasionally, perhaps accidentally wacky — film can’t quite keep flowing.

There’s no question Shim’s setup is a clever one. When we catch up with adult Amanda, she’s forged a deep bond with her only child, Chris (Fivel Stewart), as the two have long been sequestered from the world on a bee-keeping farm on which electricity is forbidden. Chris has grown up thinking her mom is actually allergic to electricity, and while the particulars of their existence have made them curiosities to others in their small town (save for a local shopkeeper played by Dermot Mulroney, who has helped turn their honey-making enterprise into a success), it’s also kept them safe.

But Chris doesn’t realize what she should really be afraid of, even as it haunts — once figuratively, and soon quite literally — her mother’s every waking moment. Late one night, Amanda’s mother appears to her, sitting silently in the darkness of her bedroom. Days later, Amanda’s pissed-off uncle, who has traveled long and far to find her, arrives with a large suitcase in tow. Inside: the remains of Amanda’s mother, known as “Umma” (the Korean word for mother) and a cache of her most beloved items. A worse package could not arrive on Amanda’s doorstep. And then it starts rattling around.

Amanda’s affliction makes for smart scares — after all, here’s a reason to have a perpetually darkened house for an understandable reason — and her life-long secret-keeping nearly skates over the awkwardness of an exposition-heavy second act. But Shim isn’t content to just stick to her inventive initial setup, and she (plus Amanda and Chris) are soon running through a gamut of creepy, kooky bits: We’ve got ghost mom, tortured screaming, a terrifying heirloom mask, a dark basement, the possibility of animal peril, body horror, and just a metric ton of bees. The payoffs to these various elements similarly span a wide berth; some of this stuff is genuinely frightening (Shim is skilled at capturing unnerving shots and holding close until it nearly hurts), but plenty of it is sort of silly.

umma movie

“Umma”

Sony

It’s unclear how much of the film’s slip and slide into more soap-y material in its final act is on purpose. One minute, Chris is getting locked in the creepy basement of the farmhouse; the next, she’s using that time to flip on the home’s long-off electricity to test her mother’s supposed illness. One minute, Amanda’s concerns about becoming her mother take on a physical manifestation; the next she’s slap-fighting with her only child. By the time a mythical creature shows up and someone goes all Jack Torrance on Chris’ college applications, not only are all bets off, so is the film’s previously tight tone and clever writing.

But Oh and Stewart manage to hold things together, thanks to the full force commitment of their performances. Amanda’s blackouts — or are they blackouts? — mean that Oh is perpetually saddled with snapping-to attention with a gasp and stunned expression, thankless work she brings real texture to. And when Amanda gets a bit wackier, Oh gets to loosen up, making a meal out of a constantly changing film. Stewart’s given a tough role, too, expected to ground the wackiness around her and also serve as an empathetic presence who has her own motivations. And the young actress delivers. For a film rooted in the bond between mother and child, they make a formidable pair.

Despite its flaws, “Umma” is an impressive debut for Shim, the kind of outing that hints at plenty more under the hood or tucked inside a massive suitcase, just bursting with secrets.

Grade: C+

A Sony release, “Umma” will be released in theaters on Friday, March 18.

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