May Not Be One to Write Home to Umma (2022) About
First Non-Festival Release: March 18, 2022 (Theatrical Release)
Director: Iris K. Shim
Writer: Iris K. Shim
Runtime: 83 Minutes
Starring: Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Daughter of Korean immigrants Amanda (Sandra Oh) lives far out in the country of the Western United States with her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart). The two spend their days reading, tending to their bee farm, and generally enjoying each other’s company. Things change when Amanda is visited by a relative informing her of the passing of her estranged mother, or as they say in Korean, her umma. Left with her most prized possessions and ashes, Amanda must find a way to explain to Chris why they live their lives without electricity and why she lied for so long about her real family.
A syrupy sentimental supernatural horror, Umma stumbles tying together its messy story.
Focused on detailing the strong mother-daughter bond between the leading characters while interweaving commentary on the intergenerational trauma of immigrants, Umma leans into the real horror of its story. When Amanda eventually shares her experiences growing up with her abusive mother, it illuminates Chris to the ways this has manifested in how she is treated. This is handled with complexity as it equally informs about Amanda’s fear of electricity and her desire to start a bee colony with her daughter while also showcasing Amanda’s reluctance of allowing Chris to explore the possibilities of college.
Amanda's greatest fear is becoming her mother and continuing this cycle of abuse, which she inadvertently almost starts by questioning Chris’s desire to go off to college. In the end, there is still quite a tenderness and understanding given to Amanda’s mother, as well as steps Amanda needs to take to grow. Letting Chris go off to college and opening herself more to others outside of Chris show that her healing isn’t immediate but is hopefully a journey that is worth it.
There is very little development afforded for most of the characters in the relatively small cast. Chris is relegated to reactionary work, with her biggest moments involving standing up to her mother. Aside from this, she doesn’t voice much of anything else except for an amorphous desire to have friends outside of her mother. Danny and River are merely plot devices to push along various conflicts between Amanda and Chris and not much else. Amanda gets most of the meaty character work, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves either. Her possession seems very forced and sudden. Aside from a flicker or two of her umma taking over and a few visions, there isn’t much driving Amanda in her actions beyond Chris’s perceived rebelliousness.
With a longer runtime, Umma could have an easier time breathing through its weighty narrative. Many questions remain unanswered and character arcs do not get fully realized by the end. It all feels too easy from a conflict standpoint. The material woefully underutilizes talent in Sandra Oh. She is a talented actress and attempts to breathe life into Amanda but is subsequently held back by the script.
Umma features plenty of style despite the disconnect between its story and its spookiness.
In its short runtime, there are many interesting visuals and shots that help add depth to the feature and mix in uneasiness to the atmosphere. The latter half of the film, however, is exceptionally dark obscuring much of the onscreen action. Its distracting to rely on squinting to understand the film and detracts from the solid imagery the film displays for its first half.
Falling into familiar conventions and noticeably rushed, both in production and marketing, Umma falls victim to lack of faith in the production team. There are many moments where Umma alludes to a film with more bite and terror before slinking back into its restrained narrative showing. Feeling more like a more dewy-eyed version of an episode of Supernatural, the biggest issue with Umma is its lack of stakes. It does feel like a more realistic portrayal of difficult family issues overflowing into the supernatural, but it isn’t enough to maintain its drive. Umma isn’t much to write home about, but it may give you a reason to write home.
Overall Score? 5/10