Directed by: Iris K. Shim
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Written by: Patrick Hao
Generational trauma has become the buzz topic of movies in the past few months, especially those films that center around first-generation immigrants, and frankly, I am sick of it. In fact, “Umma” is the second generational trauma film to feature Sandra Oh to come out this month (the other being “Turning Red”). Not only does “Umma” fail to offer anything of substance both in the horror genre and the burgeoning genre of films relating to this topic, but the film feels septic in its approach.
Iris K. Shim’s feature debut seems to be one made with good intentions and derives from possibly a personal place. Sandra Oh plays Amanda, who, along with her 16-year-old daughter, Chrissy (Fivel Stewart), lives on a remote bee farm with no electricity. That is because when Amanda was little, she was traumatized by an abusive mother (MeeWha and Alana Lee) who would punish her by forcing her to get burned by the electrical currents of a faulty lamp. Now, several decades later, Amanda tries to be a better mother than her Umma (the Korean word for mom), but the ghost of her mother is slowly engulfing her in a waking nightmare.
The premise is basic enough to glob onto any of its ideas and there is something to be said about using the classic haunting story to explore the tumultuous relationship between mother and daughter. Amanda faces the constant fear of becoming her mother as well as the fear of losing her only child. These are tangible fears that would make for a decent foundation for horror. But it is unclear if this film is an example of a compromised vision from an inexperienced filmmaker or something else. The results, however, are a dourly disappointing mess.
The film wears all its themes on its sleeves, leaving no possible room for interpretation. Its blunt, on-the-nose dialogue even makes a good actress like Sandra Oh sound clunky in her line deliveries, let alone someone like Fivel Stewart. Oh, who has a producer credit, is actively straining to add something to the material but, unlike the ghostly Umma, she does not have supernatural powers. The film is neither supported by the filmmaking as it is oversaturated with light, creating the dreaded soap opera look.
Then there are the cliches of modern horror. The surround sound boom signifies a scare is about to occur. The lack of anything new or imaginative in a genre that needs it. For a film that could have been personal to its filmmaker, it is almost insulting how impersonal this “Umma” feels.
Horror films have always explored the nuances of trauma to derive their scares. However, “Umma” does it clumsily in a way that feels like it is following a trend. Even its self-seriousness borders on parody to the point that I am almost angry at a film like “The Babadook” for starting this trend in the horror genre. Even at roughly 75-minutes without credits, “Umma” wears out its welcome.
“Umma” is in wide theatrical release.
You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.