(Note: This piece contains specific plot details about the new film release Umma.)
Director Iris K. Shim wants to get under audiences’ skin—and into their heads—with Umma (Korean for mother). Rooted in Korean culture, the harrowing movie delves into the unhealthy dynamic between a daughter and deceased mother as they confront their family heritage and the supernatural force threatening to tear them apart. Shim, who also penned the script, admits the core of the film hits close to home… minus the ghostly element.
“I have to say that I love my mother,” Shim says. “I adore her. We have a very good relationship. This is not directly inspired by her. What I was trying to explore was these moments that I’ve had more recently. As I become an adult, and as my parents see me as an adult, they share certain things they weren’t necessarily sharing when I was a kid. For me, I get to understand and get more context in terms of who my parents are, what they’ve had to endure, what experiences they’ve had and the sacrifices they have made to try and give me and my brother a good life.
“Also the fact my grandparents lived with us for most of the time I was living at home,” she continues. “First, it was my dad’s parents. Then, it was my mom’s parents. I was always able to see my mom as a daughter figure. She was servicing both, taking care of her parents and taking care of us. It really was something I wanted to explore, but just in the complete opposite way of what happens when that dynamic is toxic, such as with these characters that are unable to let go.”
Umma finds Amanda (Sandra Oh) and her daughter, Chris (Fivel Stewart), living an isolated life on an American farm. There, they raise bees and sell the honey. There’s no modern technology on the premises. That peaceful existence changes when Amanda’s uncle, whom she hasn’t seen in many moons, arrives on the doorstep bearing the remains of her deceased umma in a box. She’s tasked with laying her mother to rest. Amanda initially rejects the idea.
“For Amanda, her worst fear is becoming her mother,” explains Shim. “Ironically, that’s exactly what she becomes. In order to have that resolution with her mother at the end and for her to overcome her own trauma, she has to understand the humanity behind her mom. That’s a journey that she has to go through. In a way, Umma’s ashes and her spirit coming to this place is kind of exactly what was needed between Amanda and her daughter, to be able to orient that relationship into a more functional, independent relationship of each other.”
Amanda’s uncle also delivers a warning. “Her anger will grow as she remains in the box.” In true horror fashion, Umma’s spirit begins to haunt Amanda. She starts to experience ghastly visions and flashbacks to her days as a child. And Umma possesses Amanda to terrorize Chris.
Western audiences might not be fully familiar with Korean specters and their motivations, but there’s a universal element of the unresolved ghost in most horror. For some reason or another, the spirit cannot move on to the afterlife. But Shim believes what resonates with the East Asian culture is the notion of “there is a lot of repression that goes on.”
“From my parents’ generation, a lot of times the way that they dealt with any hardships is they just didn’t talk about it,” Shim says. “They just pushed it down. They never had a way to resolve anything because all they did was push it down, shove it down, and then not address it. But it bubbles up in a way. When you have that much repression and you have that unresolved angst… So many people are dying with so many unresolved issues that it does not allow the spirit to find any peace. And, because we feel so connected to our ancestors, your identity is actually built around your relatives.
“My parents, when they refer to their friends, to me… I don’t know any of the names of my friends’ parents,” she continues. “I only know them as so-and-so’s parents, so-and-so’s mom. That’s literally the way they describe them. Even that, in the way people identify with themselves, is in the context of their relationships. Because of that, this idea of your ancestors’ past suffering is something that comes and bleeds into yourself, and then you end up passing it along unless you can break that cycle.
“It’s not just a random ghost haunting then,” Shim adds. “It becomes so much messier. ‘What if you are haunted by a ghost, but it’s your mom?’ It’s not that easy to resolve. It’s not that they need to have some spiritual banishment to resolve. It’s actually that they have to talk to each other, and to recognize each other’s humanity and suffering, for them to actually be able to move on. That is something I really wanted to push for. This is not just a ghost. This is your mom’s spirit. If you keep pushing her away, nothing is going to be resolved.”
Creepy horror goes hand-in-hand with music, and taking Umma’s tension to another level is Roque Banos. The Don’t Breathe composer incorporated Korean instruments, such as the gayageum, to create the film’s ominous score.
“He was able to play it in a certain way that extracted different sounds from it and playing it in a way that maybe wasn’t intended, but to get the essence and almost subconscious feeling of Korean sound without it feeling overtly Korean,” explains Shim. “So, it incorporates some drumming for some of the more energetic scenes and just playing with the balance of a more Eastern sound versus Western sound, depending on what was happening in the moment.”
Umma is produced by Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell director Sam Raimi, who is, of course, no stranger to the horror and genre community. But Shim attributes Raimi’s producing partner, Zainab Azizi, for helping get her foot in the door.
“Zainab runs Raimi Productions, which is a newer entity that Sam has,” Shim explains. “She really championed the script from the moment she read it. Because she is a young woman of color, she really identified with it and really fought hard for it. She was the one who brought it to Sam and convinced him that this was something different and unique, especially to him. In the development process, he was great about bringing his experience, just in terms of the scares and the process of making a movie within the studio system.
“But what Sam was so good at was understanding that it was important to keep the relationship arc of the characters and that we couldn’t really compromise that just for the sake of the genre or the expectations of what the genre brings,” she concludes. “He was very supportive in terms of, ‘We need to humanize these characters, even the supernatural ones.’ This is what makes this feel meaningful in this story, getting the relationships right.”