I missed seeing Umma earlier this year due to timing issues, so I was excited to catch up on Iris K. Shim’s first feature film now that it was finally making its home entertainment debut this month (she previously directed a documentary project and a few shorts as well). And while Umma treads a lot of familiar thematic territory that we’ve seen in so many other horror movies of the same ilk, there’s something about how Shim approached this story that I really enjoyed as it managed to subvert a few of my preconceived notions about certain elements I was expecting to see in this movie. Umma also features a great cast who all give engaging and genuinely likable performances that made me want to root for them throughout the story and some genuinely creepy visuals that have stuck with me over these last few days.
In Umma, we’re introduced to Amanda (Sandra Oh) who has spent the better part of her life trying to escape the horrors of her childhood that came about due to the abuse and trauma she suffered at the hands of her deranged and manipulative mother. As we catch up with Amanda decades later, she’s now a mother herself to a teenage daughter named Chris (Fivel Stewart) and they spend their days living on their remote farm away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, raising bees and enjoying their time together. One day, Amanda is visited by her uncle who informs her that her mother has passed away and he brings Amanda her mother’s remains as part of their tradition. Of course, because this is a horror movie, things take a spooky turn from there, and Amanda must confront the terror that has had dominated her life before it destroys her for good.
I know for some hardened genre fans out there, Umma may not do a whole lot for them because this story is a bit softer and far more interested in relationships and thoughtfully examining trauma than it is in delivering up an onslaught of jump scares and gross-out moments. For me, that’s what I appreciated the most about it because you can feel that Shim genuinely put time into creating characters that we could enjoy and how the horrors of severe mental stress can insidiously take hold of your life in ways you may not even be expecting. Oh is the emotional anchor of Umma, and she delivers a strong performance brimming with emotion, but I have to say that the breakout star here is Stewart who does a great job of exploring her role in a very subtle and nuanced way. Dermot Mulroney is also featured in Umma as Amanda’s friend Danny who recognizes that his pal has some detrimental mental health issues that she’s dealing with, and not only did I appreciate how supportive Danny is of Amanda and her journey in this story, but how Shim never tries to shoehorn in a needless romantic angle either (men and women can just be friends).
There are also some really strong set pieces that effectively tap into Korean folklore and traditions, and I know some may argue that the finale where Amanda comes to terms with her demons, so to speak, is underwhelming, but I found those moments presented in a way that felt wholly natural (not everything has to end in a bombastic way). Again, Umma isn’t necessarily the most original genre movie to be released this year, but there’s something about how Shim didn’t go the traditional route with her supernatural tale that connected with me, and I just enjoyed how earnestly the story approaches all the genre elements and the relationships of these characters. Also, I know this might seem like a non-positive aspect to many horror fans, but I liked the fact that Umma is a genre movie I could watch with my mom and I know she’d enjoy it as well.
In terms of the Blu-ray presentation, the movie itself looks and sounds great but the fact that there aren’t any special features included with the release of Umma is a real shame, considering the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. It definitely feels like Sony could have done more to support the release of Umma (perhaps even waiting to release it to coincide with Mother’s Day, which would have made for ingenious programming). Without a doubt, Umma and everyone involved deserved better from the distributor.
Movie Score: 3/5 Disc Score: 2/5