By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Umma” is a thriller starring Sandra Oh as Amanda, a woman haunted by her mother (“umma” is “mother” in Korean). It’s an unexpectedly multi-layered story, as much dramatic as it is scary, that explores the notion of motherhood within a horror movie framework, yet for the genre gives an unusual amount of empathy to each character, including the antagonist—“umma.”
“I feel like I have to preface every interview with saying this is not directly inspired by my mother,” laughed writer and director Iris K. Shim, who insisted to the Asian Weekly, in case anyone wonders.
“None of it is a literal interpretation of my life.” Instead, Shim wished to talk about identity, as a mother, or a daughter. While not explicitly a topic of the film, immigration also comes up, as well as connection to one’s culture. For Shim, the process of writing the story brought her closer to her Korean roots. Certain symbols in the movie, such as Korean funerary masks, were objects Shim had seen in her house, yet didn’t know much about.
“I just knew they were Korean, something that my parents had. I never really questioned it, but when I started learning more…I started to understand that there was this rich history behind those masks.”
In the movie, Amanda must cope with her PTSD from an abusive mother (played by MeeWha Alana Lee). You can tell immediately that she has spent her lifetime not only dealing with this trauma, but also making sure it did not trickle into her life with her daughter, Chris (played by Fivel Stewart). We know something is up right away from Amanda’s nightmares, where “umma” talks to her in typical guilt-laden maternal language, “Why can’t you see how much you hurt me?” And we get flashes of horrifying implications that “umma” tortured Amanda in some way. We learn that Amanda lives “off the grid” as a beekeeper and that no electricity is allowed on the property because it “makes her sick.” Amanda and Chris live a peaceful, almost connected-at-the-hip, relationship, until the “umma” begins to insert herself more and more.
Chris knows nothing about her roots, her grandmother, or the suffering her mother is experiencing, except that she often comforts Amanda after she’s had a nightmare. Along with the masks, other symbols, such as the nine-tailed fox, are meant to represent this unfamiliarity that Chris has with all things Korean—and reflect Shim’s experience writing the story.
“When I started thinking a little bit more about Korean folklore, I came across this nine-tailed fox…It was an image that I had not seen before.”
Shim, who was born in Korea but came to the United States as a baby, started calling around to her first generation relatives, asking about the lore.
“It was an interesting moment for me to feel like my blood is Korean, but it was this thing that I wasn’t aware of.” The same goes for Chris, who “even though she has Korean blood in her, she sees this imagery that seems so foreign, so different…it’s really meant to be a little bit of a non sequitur where it’s just this moment that she realizes, I don’t know what this is.”
Chris not only has to learn “on the fly” about her Korean heritage, but also about her mother’s trauma as it becomes all too real in both of their lives due to the malicious haunting by “umma.” As the alarming episodes pick up (we don’t know at first if “umma” is dead or alive), we wonder if what Amanda has spent her life trying to avoid will occur—if she will “become” her mom.
“The idea of turning into your mother is almost every woman’s worst nightmare,” Shim said. “Even if you adore your mom, the idea of turning into her is still a little bit scary…That definitely was something I wanted to tap into. What’s fun about doing it in [this] genre space, is that you can really have a scene where they are literally…turning into a physical manifestation of one’s worst fear.” (Shim acknowledged we can see ourselves turning into our dads as well).
The movie is definitely scary, and supernatural, but what “keeps it real” is that for one, there are abusive mothers like “umma” in the world and two, most people can relate at least in some part to the push and pull that exists between children and their parents, the guilt, the burden, and also the love. Amanda wants to be “free” of “umma,” while Chris just wants to go to college. Both are threatening to the older person. Amanda, it turns out, has done a lot towards her daughter’s happiness, yet Chris is unaware, until Amanda, “under the influence” of “umma” cannot resist that whole “I carried you in my womb” spiel, accusing Chris of being disrespectful and willful.
The words are familiar to us, even triggering. There is a joy of motherhood, but there is also a tyranny, such as when Amanda’s uncle tells her that it was her responsibility to look after “umma”—even if “umma” was abusive. Warning—this movie could be hard to watch by someone who has experienced abuse. On the other hand, the opportunity for healing that is there could be helpful to many viewers. There are things about our parents, and about “umma” that we, and Amanda, don’t know. This was the case for Shim, too, who explained that her parents, as immigrants, “tried to protect me from what it was that they were going through…Now that they’re a little bit more open with me about the things that they did, or some of the struggles that they had, and realizing that they were trying to protect me by hiding certain things from me, it really made me appreciate that sort of struggle that they went through.”
Will Amanda turn into her mother? Will Chris and Amanda sustain their close bond? Why can’t Amanda turn on a light bulb? Will Amanda get with Dermot Mulroney, who is still hot? “Umma” keeps your heart pounding but also makes you think, and feel. It is more than just a horror movie. “Umma” brings cultural and psychological insights while moving the viewer through the entire arc from the horror, to what caused it, to a resolution that is deeply satisfying.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.