UMMA. Intergenerational Asian American women's trauma is having a big year at the movies. It felt like my daughter and I had barely wiped our eyes and shaken off the cringing giggles of Turning Red (2022), when we found ourselves visually and emotionally sandblasted by Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). Both centered around Chinese American mothers and daughters with fraught relationships weighed down by the toxic coping skills that have been passed from one generation to the next. Writer-director Iris K. Shim's Umma (2022), starring the enormously talented Sandra Oh, also dives into mother-daughter drama but as horror. Umma didn't make it to theaters in our county but it's just popped up streaming on Netflix.
While Korean horror has a pale-knuckled chokehold on the genre, a Korean American ghost story with a Korean American writer, director and cast is something new to the mainstream, this one coming under Sam Raimi's production company. It's a solid, entertaining and potentially cathartic (watch with your mother at your own risk) supernatural horror that doesn't go as deep into the darkness as Hereditary (2018), for which I'm grateful. But what it lacks in terror, it makes up for in its fresh point of view and thoughtful metaphors for other kinds of haunting.
Amanda (Oh) has raised her teenage daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) on a remote farm, keeping bees and selling honey through the local general store, for which Amanda also does bookkeeping. Danny (Dermot Mulroney), the shop's owner, is their sole visitor, making pickups according to Amanda's zero-electricity rules: nothing electrical, not cars, watches or phones, allowed. Her phobia is rooted in the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother (MeeWha Alana Lee), who shocked her with a live wire after Amanda, then named Soo-Hyun, ran away, and it drove her to shut down power to the house and consign all its appliances to a basement graveyard when Chris was a baby. But even in her no-tech sanctuary, Amanda suffers disorienting nightmares about the mother she finally escaped, and clings to Chris for comfort. As much as Chris cares for Amanda, she's starting to look for her own life and connections beyond their insular bond, an inevitable separation for which Amanda isn't ready.
The peace, wobbly as it is, is broken when Amanda's Korean uncle (Tom Yi) arrives, having impressively tracked her down despite her having no phone or email, and having ditched her Korean name. Her estranged umma (mother), he tells her with no small amount of scolding, died months ago, calling for Soo-Hyun in her last moments. He shames her for her disloyalty for abandoning her name, her culture and her mother — betrayals of filial duty he warns will leave her mother, whose rage and will he seems well acquainted with, trapped as an angry ghost that will poison Amanda's life. He presents a suitcase containing her umma's ashes and a few heirlooms to be honored and enshrined, its handle tied with a silk kerchief adorned with a nine-tailed fox spirit, the reddest of flags for supernatural danger.
Shim is not revolutionizing horror here. The simple effects — the appearance of a figure, objects moving, the timeless creepiness of an antique mask — are low-budget staples used to strong effect as manifestations of a ghost, as well as the post-traumatic terror Amanda has been reliving alone for years. The metaphor of the ghost as past pain haunting a family isn't new, but Shim's take is through the perspective of Asian American experience: cultural and familial connections, where we hold onto or cut ties. As the spirit's tricks drive a wedge between Amanda and Chris, the cycle of suffering and abuse is interestingly rendered in real and hallucinatory battles, with Amanda's fight against her mother's spirit bleeding over into interactions with Chris. Amanda's desire to hold on is, of course, pushing her daughter away, as are the secrets she's kept and the lies she's constructed to keep Chris safe (or, perhaps, just to keep her). Shim's story also hones in on the isolation and sacrifice of an immigrant parent's devotion to a child on the threshold of a world in which they themselves may not belong.
Stewart makes herself small under Oh's shadow and intensity, with Chris hiding her real self and desires under her own mask of obedience, baffled and accommodating Amanda's erratic behavior with no information to go on, fed only the crumbling fictions that have kept her mother intact. Oh's face does the work of an army, often in unsettling close-ups as she struggles to hold onto herself and careens between cowering and defiance, nurturing and cruelty.
All this coming in at a tight 83 minutes sacrifices some development, and some of the exposition and epiphany feels easy and rushed at the end, like Amanda has been doing some heavy therapy offscreen. But the ever-compelling Oh makes it work. It's a lot to ask of an electricity-free setting, but I wish — as I often do watching new movies — some of the action had been shot with a little more light and less of the darkness, which yielded more irritating confusion than mystery. And there it is: I sound just like my mother. PG13. 83M. NETFLIX.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.