If not for Sandra Oh’s committed performance in this allegorical ghostly horror, Umma would be borderline unwatchable. A PG-13 rated flick from director Iris K. Shim and produced by genre maven Sam Raimi should have easily been a home run. Throw in a unique flavor of Korean mythology, a dark, contained story, and a score from frequent Fede Alvarez collaborator Roque Banos, and Umma should be one of the best horror movies of 2022. Sadly, Umma is more of a disappointment than anything else. It takes the concept deathly serious to the point where the audience will laugh at the more absurdist elements when they should be flinching in fear.
Sixteen years ago, Amanda (Oh) left her relationship with her Umma (Korean for “mother”) behind, along with all forms of electricity. Amanda locked it all away in her cellar out on the American farm she has chosen to live at, her newborn daughter coming before anything else. Now, Amanda has gone into beekeeping, and subsequently honey production and sales with her daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart). Danny (Dermot Mulroney) remains the family’s only friend, and has helped Chrissy’s Honey Bees sell out online! To keep up with demand, Amanda proposes they develop more bee colonies; however, Chrissy clearly has her mind elsewhere as she turns her attention towards college applications. Amanda continues to be plagued by nightmares of her past, including loud bangs, electrocution, and the tormented cries of her Umma.
When Amanda’s strictly Korean-speaking uncle shows up on her property unannounced, Amanda is forced to confront her past in ways she wished perhaps to never acknowledge. He comes with the news that her Umma is dead, and he doesn’t hide his opinion that it is all Amanda’s fault. He simply drops off the box of Umma’s remains and her cherished possessions, warning that Umma’s anger will grow and begin to seep into Amanda—“mother always gets what she wants.” This ominous message serves as the basis for Umma’s brand of horror: a jump-scare heavy ghost feature that I felt we had long ago left behind in the early 2000s. Try not to laugh when Danny says to Amanda later in the film, “I can hear myself turning into my mother,” as Amanda shoots him a knowing look.
A woman haunted by her past is fascinating, especially when one has an actress as phenomenal as Sandra Oh playing her. Disappearing ghostly figures and vagaries in morals and messaging do Umma no favors. Ultimately, what brings this down is that the script cannot seem to decide what type of movie it wants to be. Does it want to be serious, emotionally-elevated horror? Does it want to embrace that campy ghost quality of films such as 2005’s Boogeyman? In trying to do both at the same time, Umma trips over its own metaphorical CGI-self. The emotional aspects do not feel earned, the horror element feels half-baked, and the mother/daughter relationship is not nearly as effectively-done as the movie thinks. With all of this stripped away, one is left jamming to the incredible score from Roque Banos, impeccable sound design, and Sandra Oh screaming her way through her next ghostly encounter.
Umma jump-scares its way into theaters everywhere on Friday, March 18th.