Directed by: Iris K. Shim | 83 minutes | drama, horror | Actors: Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, MeeWha Alana Lee, Tom Yi
Sometimes “mother” is the name of terror on the lips of children. Mothers are genetically programmed to love their children. Sometimes, maybe more than sometimes, this natural encoding goes wrong. How it can go wrong is the subject of horror film ‘Umma’, directed by Iris Shim. She also wrote the script and it has come into the hands of Zainab Azizi, a fellow producer of Sam Raimi who works in his production company, Raimi Productions. As the loyal horror fans know, Sam Raimi has some good horror movies to his name, such as ‘Drag Me to Hell’ and ‘The Evil Dead’ series. As a woman of color, the story appealed to Zainab because she recognized herself in the subject matter: how to live as a foreigner in a new country and how identity plays a role in the adjustment process. The ball has started to roll and the result is a horror film that looks more like a family drama in a horror jacket. Furthermore, themes such as culture and heritage are addressed and how they influence our lives.
Amanda (Sandra Oh), a Korean, lives with her teenage daughter, Chris (Fivel Stewart), on a remote farm where they keep bees, sell honey and tend chickens. Mother and daughter have a deep bond and the world is far from their bubble. There is no electricity in the house and they have no electronics because Amanda is allergic to electricity. In this modern age this is quite a departure from the normal and usual. That is why Chris is seen as an outsider by the local youth. Chris, longing in her youth for the wide world in which to spread her wings, enrolls in university. Amanda is not happy about this. One day, Amanda is visited by her uncle from Korea. She is surprised and, quite coldly, asks him what he is doing. He has a suitcase with him and he informs her about the death of her mother. Amanda’s facial expression betrays an internal emotional storm that she won’t allow to erupt. The uncle gives her the suitcase and says her mother’s anger and pain will continue to grow until it infects her. Amanda asks him to go and he leaves without explaining his cryptic words. That evening she opens the suitcase and finds a collection of her mother’s things, and something else. She hides these items from Chris who, due to her mother’s mysterious behavior and other unexplained events, sets out to investigate. What she finds turns her world upside down.
Obviously, this story is close to the director, Iris Shim. An important theme is identity. How does one deal with this in a new environment? What place does culture have? Do we dissolve like a drop of water in the sea of society? And what are the consequences of this? The different societies in the world have never been so close to each other. In the past these were islands with their own customs and habits. Because of globalization, everyone lives everywhere and people are much more likely to end up in new societies where they have to find their place. The question is: how far will you go with this? How much of yourself do you let go so that you fit into the new group like a puzzle piece? This voyage of discovery is the beating heart of ‘Umma’ and many will recognize themselves in it. Another theme is how we tend to raise our children the way our parents did with us. Sometimes we disagree on this, but we still repeat our father or mother in the form of disciplinary slaps that we give to our children.
‘Umma’ would have worked better as a drama than a horror. A good example is ‘Minari’ where a South Korean family also tries to forge their way in the jungle of a new society, in combination with what is expected of them and what they want. The horror element is of course strongly present in ‘Umma’. It is one hundred percent a horror movie. Only the story would come out much better if the characters were more in-depth. It seems as if the drama works like a lightning rod and the horror does not come out well as a result. Not even at all. However, this of course says nothing about the acting performance.
Sandra Oh (“Sideways”, “Meditation Park”) is the person who carries the film believably, emotionally. It is clear with Fivel Stewart (as Chris) that she still has to gain the necessary experience. Dermot Mulroney (as Danny) is also an old hand in the business but has more of a simple role in the background. The viewer has to rely on the acting spectrum that Sandra Oh shows while invisible forces make life difficult for them.
Although ‘Umma’ is a story where many can identify with the essence, it is below par as a horror film. It makes too much use of the standard scare mechanisms which also makes the film look a bit cheap and thin. Like a pearl in the mud, Sandra Oh is the shining star. Horror is personal and everyone’s demons look different. Therefore, it is difficult to predict how this film will fall. It can be said that the real horror fans can make better use of their time. And drama-loving viewers won’t appreciate the horror element. So it can go both ways. How are you?