If I were to describe to you a movie where Sandra Oh’s over protective parenting and complicated relationship with her own mother leads to supernatural problems that are directly linked to her culture, you’d probably reply with something like: “Dude, I’ve already seen Turning Red!”. Well, allow me to point out that there’s another movie out this year that with those exact, same plot details that puts a more sinister spin on helicopter parenting and goes by the name of Umma.
Umma is the Korean word for mother and this movie, directed by Iris K. Shim in her first full length feature and produced by horror supremo Sam Raimi, obviously hoped to tap into a more Asian style of horror while having something to say about complicated mother/daughter relationships – but the finished product doesn’t exactly manage the balance.
After her relationship with her mother soured horribly after her father left, Amanda was forced to endure childhood abuse as her umma took the frustrations she had with her life out on her daughter. Eventually deciding enough is enough and left with a traumatic aversion to electricity, Amanda finally fled this life, ditched all connection with her family and the Korean way of life and rebuilt her own, eventually raising a daughter herself under highly protective circumstances. Her daughter, Chris, has been brought up in a world that would make the amish take a step back and it’s only natural she starts to yearn for a more normal life that involves more friends and less bee keeping and she has been toying with the idea of applying to college but is reluctant to bring up the topic in fear or hurting her mother’s feelings.
Matters get infinitely more complicated when Amanda’s uncle turns up with news that her mother has passed after years of living alone and he has brought some of her belongings plus her ashes for her to perform the Korean ritual to send her soul off to the afterlife, but after refusing to have anything to do with it, things start to get decidedly strange.
Amanda starts seeing a strange figure standing in the corners of dark rooms that looks worryingly like her Umma and worse yet, she also starts behaving cruelly to her daughter much like was done to her.
It soon becomes apparent (to us that is – the characters take ages to piece it together) that the malignant spirit of umma wants to claim Amanda’s body in order to once again spitefully control her daughter while simultaneously raising Chris to the standards that she deems necessary.
To cut these supernatural apron strings, Amanda is going to have to face some painful truths about her own parenting and re-embrace her heritage if she has any chance of overcoming this chilling example of back seat parenting.
I’ve said quite a few times now that Hollywood drawing more and more from other cultures can only be a good thing – not only does it obviously increase diversity, but in these idea-starved times, adding a different viewpoint to an overfamilar can breathe new life into a concept that’s grown noticably stale. It’s here at these points where Umma does rather well, with Sandra Oh’s Amanda being both a survivor of parental abuse and someone who has renounced her Korean heritage as an extreme coping mechanism to help with the trauma inflicted on her. Oh – who’s physically unable to put in a bad performance even if her live depended on it – latches onto the character’s pain and trigger points like a woman possessed (pun intended) and her naturally gentle and mournful demeanor lends itself well to the film as she hauls around her troubling and sizable baggage as if she’s qualifying for an Olympic deadlift event.
However, in spite of her typically effective performance, Umma seems genuinely unable to decide exactly what kind of movie it wants to be – which is fairly ironic for a movie about a hijacking of someone’s personality. You feel that if director Shim had moved further in either direction, you might have had quite the movie on their hands, but instead of going deeper into more outright, visceral horror or going extremely subtle by making the haunting far more psychological, the movie sits awkwardly in the middle, neither scary or smart enough to fully realise it’s potential.
It also doesn’t help that its PG-13 rating means that a lot of the more adult concepts are watered down to spell it out to the audience with painfully on-the-nose dialogue that requires Sandra Oh to actually say things like “Shes making me do things to you that she did to me!” and try to make it sound natural.
Despite having to make the occasional clunky line sound natural, Oh has plenty to play with, but in comparison the rest of the cast have slim pickings to bring to the screen. Fivel Stewart’s Chris essentially an angelic blank page and Dermot Mulroney’s Danny seemingly only there for a shoulder to cry on with neither of them required to do much except recoil at Amanda’s changing demeanour or simply just offer a comforting word. It syncs up with the movie’s supernatural offerings as it all seems too localised to be legitimately threatening – the fact that umma only wants to possess Amanda and not reign chaos and death down upon the supporting cast is genuinely refreshing, but it also feels far too passive to feel too much of a threat and the scenes where Amanda’s face actually digitally transforms into her mother’s just seems unnecessary and needlessly expensive when you have an actress with Oh’s range who could probably sell it just as well.
The core concept about having to grow up with a domineering mother who is taking all her shit out on her kids because she is unable to process her own misery is a strong one and the gnawing fear of growing up to literally emulate said parent is a fertile soil for a horror film, but unfortunately Umma just can’t seal the deal and seems a little shaky when trying to turn it’s ideas into genuine scares.
Far from being the mother of modern possession movies, this promising but ultimately quiet little film leaves you wanting to keep mum about the whole thing…