Release Date – 25th March 2022, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 23 minutes, Director – Iris K. Shim
Amanda’s (Sandra Oh) life of relative seclusion, with her teenage daughter (Fivel Stewart), is shattered when the ghost of her recently passed mother (MeeWha Alana Lee) begins to haunt her as her living situation threatens to change.
“I couldn’t live without you, and now I can’t truly die without you” echo the words of beekeeper Amanda’s (Sandra Oh) recently deceased mother (MeeWha Alana Lee) as she yet again haunts her in the dead of night. It’s been many years since Amanda escaped the trappings of her family life in South Korea to move to America, however with that has come her own personal seclusion. Yet, she seems happy with her idyllic lifestyle. Void of electricity, which she has an intense fear and banning of on her premises claiming to have an illness caused by it, she lives her life producing honey with her teenage daughter, Chris (Fivel Stewart). However, this calm and peaceful life in an isolated country house, only really seeing local shop owner Danny (Dermot Mulroney) when he comes to collect honey, is shattered when Amanda’s mother begins to haunt her.
It comes just as Chris begins to look into going to college, seeking her own sense of independence, and wanting to go out and make friends – particularly after meeting Danny’s niece, River (Odeya Rush). However, Amanda and her mother begin to reflect each other with views of their children abandoning them. There’s plenty of build-up to the core horror elements and a lot of context and exposition. Much of it is spoken by Oh as she explains the ways of Korean culture; which create effective key details within the narrative, reminded that children were to take on the duties of care towards their parents as they began to age, duties which she abandoned by moving to America. During certain scenes the film almost feels bogged down by the detail that it begins to go into when it comes to explaining the horror, instead of simply allowing the darkness to explain itself and be presumed by the viewer, as could easily happen.
Yet, amongst this we manage to get some personal notes that look into Amanda herself. They manage to flesh out the film that bit more and create a more personal edge to the character to push some of the more horror-infused moments throughout the short 83 minute course of the piece. While not anything intensely scary, and certainly along the lines of things we’ve seen before, there’s still an air of suspense every now and then that’s well built up and doesn’t always provide the expected jump scares, leaving the lingering tension with the viewer. It comes across in shots that appear to have been influenced by producer Sam Raimi, particularly those which aren’t plunged into almost complete darkness. They help to keep you generally engaged with the piece as it leans away from its coatings of context in scenes prior, allowing the viewer to simply understand through the visual and unsaid nature of such elements rather than being told everything by Oh, who otherwise gives a good leading performance.
She works well with Stewart to create a good mother-daughter pairing at the centre of the piece. The family nature helps to push some of the darkness and the horror and keeps the interest of the viewer as things pan out. They do so rather quickly with the time passing by well, perhaps helped by the fact that the run time is so short, with relative ease. There may not be any outright scares within that space, but there’s certainly some well-handled suspense which doesn’t ultimately rely on jump scares and better shows the inner fears and worries of both characters, particularly Amanda as their lives and living situations threaten to change in the face of their views and decisions. It speaks more than the more direct elements of context which come across in the dialogue of one or two scenes throughout the piece.
Yet, Umma certainly doesn’t speak directly to the audience from start to finish, and it’s better for it. Working best when allowing its narrative details and style to work together instead of taking turns. It takes a bit of time, but eventually there’s something lightly interesting and engaging within the film; helped along by its embracing of culture and the personal points for its characters.
While its context might speak a bit too directly to the audience, when it manages to wind it into the suspense created within some of the horror elements there’s an effective and interesting strand within Umma, helped along by the performances of Oh and Stewart.