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Umma (A Movie Review)

UMMA (2022)

Starring Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, Tom Yi, MeeWha Alana Lee, Danielle K. Golden, Hana Marie Kim and Mark Kirksey.

Screenplay by Iris K. Shim.

Directed by Iris K. Shim.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing. 83 minutes. Rated PG-13.

With the likes of Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host, Oldboy and particularly the Oscar-winning Parasite, Korean film (and filmmakers) have been on quite a roll in the last couple of decades. Umma (which is the Korean word for mom) is not exactly a Korean film, however its storyline and background very much revolves around Korean life and traditions.

The film takes place in the United States. Its director is a Korean American who is making her feature film debut. (She had previously directed the full-length documentary The House of Suh.) Star Sandra Oh is also of Korean ancestry, although she was born in Canada and has lived in the US for much of her life. The only other actor who is really known in the film is Dermot Mulroney, who is obviously also not Korean. It was produced by American horror-comic film director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at the Multiverse of Madness).

Umma is a ghost story – sort of – and yet it is trying for much deeper resonances. It doesn’t always reach them… in fact it usually doesn’t, really… but it is trying to be a little deeper than the average scare film.

I have to say right off the bat that Oh, who is best known for Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve – does a fantastic job in her role, even if it does not always live up to her work.

She plays Amanda, an obviously neurotic beekeeper (yes, you read that right…) who lives on a sprawling farm in the middle of nowhere. Due to some very obscure illness, Amanda becomes violently ill when she is exposed to any kind of electricity (huh?) and thus never leaves the farm, which is completely off the grid. (No electrical appliances, all lamps are flame-based, no cars, no cell phones…) From the very beginning, this malady seems odd, and even though it is eventually explained away in the script, it still doesn’t make much sense.

Amanda’s daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart) is home-schooled but reaching college age and considering going off to school. Even though she is sweet and pretty, she has no real friends other than her mother (with whom she is very, very close) and is considered a bit of an oddball by most of the locals due to their spartan lifestyle. Unlike her mother, Chrissy is not afraid to venture into town – in fact she enjoys it – and while she is mostly happy in her life, she is interested in seeing more of the world as well.

The supernatural invades their little plot of the world when a strange man shows up at the farm. It turns out that he is the brother of Amanda’s long-estranged mother. Umma has died, and her last wishes were that her daughter perform a Korean ceremony to pass her into the next realm.

However, there is a dark, secret past between Amanda and her mother and Amanda refuses to abide by her wishes. Amanda feels that she was a cold, judgmental and evil mother – she has done all in her power to be a different kind of mother for Chrissy – so she just avoids doing it. Until suddenly she starts seeing – or imagining she sees – her mother in the farm and in the fields.

And that is basically where Umma falls apart somewhat – and this is coming from someone who is a sucker for ghost stories. It starts to rely on somewhat cliched horror tropes and jump scares, and it loses much of the eccentric energy it had to start.

Umma’s world is a quiet, insular, desolate, paranoid world. In fact, only six actors are listed in the end credits of the film, although there are another 5-10 uncredited extras that pop up periodically in the film, mostly in the early scenes – none of whom have any dialogue, I believe.

Umma had the potential to be a fascinating and creepy look at lives and culture, but it never quite reaches that potential.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: May 24, 2022.

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