As a little American horror film peppered with some Korean cultural elements, “Umma” surely intrigued me at first but then eventually disappointed me. As a South Korean moviegoer, I appreciated a number of cultural elements in the film while also admiring the committed efforts of its leading actress, but, alas, the movie often suffers from its weak narrative and thin characterization, and I eventually came out of the screening room without much impression.
Shortly after the opening scene, the movie quickly establishes the isolated background surrounding its two main characters. Around the time when her daughter was born, Amanda (Sandra Oh) settled in a house located at some remote spot, and she and her daughter have lived alone together during next 16 years. Although she has run a small but successful beekeeping business around her house, Amanda prefers to live alone without any kind of electronic equipment for being sort of allergic to electricity, and Chris (Fivel Stewart), who is now a teenage girl, has not had much problem with her mother’s rather eccentric solitary lifestyle.
So far, life has been fairly good for Amanda and Chris, but there come two different changes into their life. On one day, a middle-aged Korean man suddenly comes to Amanda’s residence, and this man turns out to be none other than Amanda’s uncle. He sternly notifies to Amanda that her mother recently died, and he also gives her a box containing not only her mother’s ashes but also several personal items belonging to her mother.
Although he emphasizes that she should do an honor her mother, Amanda is not so willing to do that mainly because she still does not love her mother much. After all, as reflected by what is shown during the opening scene, there were some bad feelings between her and her mother in the past, and doing an honor to her mother is certainly the last thing she wants to do now. In addition, after her uncle departs, she begins to experience a number of ominous things, and it seems that this strange situation is somehow connected with her umma (It means ‘mother’ in Korean, by the way) and their old past.
Meanwhile, Amanda becomes more troubled to discover that her daughter has been actually considering going to a college. While she is supposed to support her daughter’s aspiration as a mother, Amanda cannot accept well the possibility of living alone by herself, and that accordingly leads to considerable conflict between them. While Chris is baffled by why her mother becomes more disturbed day by day, Amanda comes to clash more with her daughter, and the tension between them is fueled further by whatever seems to be hovering around Amanda.
Around that narrative point, we surely get a number of moments of shock and awe as expected, but director/writer Iris K. Shim, who incidentally made a feature film debut here, and her crew members did a good job of building up enough creepiness around the screen. Thanks to the lack of electricity in our heroine’s house, there are indeed lots of things going bump in the night, and those personal items of Amanda’s mother including an old traditional Korean dress provide extra spookiness.
However, Shim’s screenplay frequently stumbles in case of building up its two main characters and the drama between them. While we never get to know that much about Amanda’s past before the very end of the story, the screenplay does not provide much depth to Chris either, and her accidental friendship with the niece of Amanda’s old business partner is perfunctory at best and superficial at worst. As a result, we do not care that much about the growing possible danger surrounding Amanda and her daughter, and we are all the more disappointed as the movie comes to resolve everything in the story too hurriedly during its last 15 minutes.
Furthermore, I was also quite dissatisfied with how those Korean cultural elements in the story are rather under-utilized. When I saw a certain scarf with the picture of a nine-tailed fox, I came to have some expectation as a guy who once worried about whether his mother was actually a nine-tailed fox during those good old childhood years, but, sadly, the movie does not use this interesting supernatural element well enough to scare or amuse me.
Anyway, I cannot possibly blame Sandra Oh, a Korean Canadian actress who has steadily demonstrated her versatility since her breakthrough supporting turn in Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” (20014). Even when the movie becomes quite shaky during its last act, Oh’s strong performance carries it to the end, and I could willingly overlook her partially imperfect handling of Korean dialogues in the film. In case of a few other main performers in the movie, Fivel Stewart is mostly wasted due to her bland character, and the same thing can be said about Dermot Mulroney and Odeya Rush, who simply occupy their small respective spots at the fringe of the story.
In conclusion, “Umma” is a misfire which could be much better in many aspects, but it is not a total disaster at least thanks to Oh’s admirable efforts, and several more effective moments in the film show some glimpses of talent from Shim. As far as I can see, she has enough talent to move on from this disappointing dub, and I sincerely hope that I and other audiences will be more entertained in the next time.