In Umma (Korean for mother), Amanda (Sandra Oh) and her daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart) live off the grid on a farm where they raise bees rather than vegetables, and it’s easy to imagine that writer-director Iris K. Shim intends for her feature debut to play out like a horror version of Minari. In Lee Isaac Chung’s 2020 Oscar-nominated semi-autobiographical film, the initially awkward arrival of Grandma from South Korea culminates in and underscores the children’s embrace of the cultural identity she symbolizes. The homestead in Umma embodies Americana, and when Chrissy’s Grandma (MeeWha Alana Lee) visits, she too represents the old world—but with decidedly more vengeful motivations.
A prologue depicts her abusing the young Amanda, then known as Soo Hyun (Hana Kim), with shocks from an exposed electrical cord after she tries to run away, which traumatizes Amanda so much that she swears off electricity for life. She forbids anyone to come near her home with a running car or even a cell phone, finds lightning triggering, and suffers from recurring nightmares.
One day Amanda’s estranged uncle (Tom Yi) shows up unannounced at her farm with her mother’s ashes and personal effects in a suitcase. He chides her for being unwed and for abandoning her mother and her Korean name, warning Amanda that her mother’s anger will fester as long as her ashes remain in the suitcase. But when home-schooled Chrissy obtains an application for a university that will take her out from under her mother’s protective control, Amanda succumbs to her worst fears of turning into her own mother, which the presence of Grandma’s ashes appears to propel.
While unwittingly acquiring our parents’ worst traits is a relatable, even universal concern, Amanda’s resistance to follow in her mother’s footsteps entails wholesale rejection of her heritage. It’s unclear if Shim’s use of Yellow Peril tropes for horror is purposeful, casting a sinister air over benign cultural signifiers that should be familiar to Korean viewers. But the black and white title sequence offers an “Orientalism” supercut that includes images of women in traditional Korean dress and books with hanja printed on the cover. Literally everything Korean in the film seems to signify danger: the foreboding arrival of the Korean-speaking uncle; Chrissy’s discovery of a hanbok in the attic; a scary looking traditional wooden mask called a tal that looks like a ghostly visage underneath a silk wrap.
At 84 minutes, Umma proceeds at a brisk pace. The film’s scares are mostly atmospheric, with stately camera movements slowly creeping through scenes. Flashes of apparitions, sometimes out of focus, lurk in the background or in the corner of the eye, lingering for just a split second. Blood, guts, and visual effects are minimal, but the film utilizes sound effects effectively to do the heavy lifting in set pieces. Meanwhile, the influence of Korean horror feels palpable—and the film will certainly satisfy the subgenre’s fans—but many of Shim’s choices end up offering a decidedly uncomplimentary depiction of the nexus of Asian and Asian-American culture.
Some of the same Yellow Peril tropes that appear in the film are directly responsible for the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, which jumped 339 percent in 2021 alone per data compiled by California State University San Bernardino’s Center For The Study Of Hate And Extremism. Consequently, they must be deployed purposefully, especially in a Hollywood studio movie—and here, they don’t seem to be. Particularly at a moment when Asian and Asian American characters are seeking more inclusivity and diversion, this film seems to vilify many of their cultural hallmarks or traditions. Further to that end, a genre movie like this may or may not be the right platform to examine Asian Americans’ dread or self-loathing about their ancestry, but Umma’s depiction of that conflict does not contribute any substantial ideas to that conversation.
Meanwhile, Sandra Oh makes her second turn in almost as many weeks as an “overbearing Asian mom at risk of becoming her own mother,” albeit this time more frighteningly than in Turning Red. Ironically, she transforms into a figurative monster here instead of a literal one there, but it’s nevertheless exciting to witness her tackle the flip side of the same coin and be excellent playing both. Not unlike the Pixar film, this one arrives at a coda that broadly argues that Asian-Americans can better thrive when they reconcile the duality of their identities, and someday Umma and Turning Red might make for an excellent double feature. But until we’re a bit further removed from the current wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, Shim’s film underplays the potential nuance that might come from a proper exploration of that idea, instead reinforcing the idea that nonwhite language, imagery, and faces are to be feared—worst of all, to the people bearing them.