Some of the best scary sagas involve the occult. The filmmakers need not resort to jarring jump scares, shrieking musical cues, and/or prosthetic gore to induce fear. Our heroine tangles with a spirit from beyond the grave.

The dread we feel grows out of our sympathy for her predicament. The horror is largely character-driven in this chiller about a woman who refuses to be dominated by her mom. Eventually, her nerve-racking anxiety smolders until it reaches a relentless climax when really weird things occur.

In her cinematic debut, writer & director Iris K. Shim has conjured up a gripping, white-knuckled yarn about an adult daughter’s estranged but deceased mother who hounds her from the grave.

Predictably, the harmony between our first-generation Korean American protagonist, Amanda (Sandra Oh of “Sideways”), and her teenage daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart of “Pit Fighter”) in “Umma” (*** OUT OF ****) breaks down about half-way into this brooding, 83-minute, PG-13 rated, nail-biter.

During Amanda’s youth, her abusive mom (MeeWha Alana Lee) wielded live electric wires to shock and scorch her as punishment for her disobedience. Predictably, Amanda’s traumatic memories aggravated her phobia about electricity.

Although her house is wired for electricity, she curtails its usage. Amanda and Chris live ascetic lives. They raise honey bees in a remote orchard somewhere out west. Incidentally, sales of their honey have been so successful they cannot keep up with demand. Out of the blue one day, Amanda’s irate uncle, Mr. Kang (Tom Yi of “The Purge”), rolls up at their farm in a rental without warning.

Scolding Amanda, he enlightens her about her mother’s passage and presents her with a suitcase laden with her artifacts and ashes. This ominous suitcase constitutes the equivalent of a Pandora’s box. After years of blessed solitude, Amanda shrinks at the prospect of disposing of her unwonted mom’s cremains. Ultimately, our heroine and her dead mother wind up waging paranormal warfare.

Since she is Korean American, Shim enlivens this atmospheric chiller with allusions to native folklore. Appropriately, “Umma” is Korean for ‘mother.’ Strict rules of conduct dictate the roles of both mother & daughter. Shim uses these cultural decrees to shape and foreshadow this disturbing narrative that never wears out its welcome.

When he berates Amanda for being a bad daughter, Mr. Kang reflects his Korean heritage. “It’s the child’s obligation to her parents both in life and forever afterward.” Sadly, Kang knows nothing about Amanda’s harrowing upbringing. Worse, her uncle lays an old-fashioned guilt trip on her.

He holds Amanda responsible for her mother’s heart attack because the former abandoned the latter. He rebukes Amanda for adopting an American name and shunning her Korean name. Living off the grid as she does, Amanda has neither  a cell phone nor an email address.

Was it a miracle Mr. Kang found her? Or did her evil mother lead him to her! Kang continues, “And now she is trapped in this world like a gwiskin.” A gwiskin is a Korean ghost. Kang warns Amanda her mother’s “anger will grow as long as she remains in the box.” He adds, “Each day her pain will turn to poison and seep into you.

Your mother always gets what she wants. You know what she’s capable of.” “Umma” could have easily slipped into parody, but it testifies to Shim’s sincerity that it never does.

“Umma” dramatizes the problems some people have with their parents. They live in dread at the prospect of repeating their mistakes. Widowed and living with her daughter, Amanda hasn’t let Chris out of her sight except to send her on biking errands into town. Amanda’s only other direct contact is a storekeeper, Danny (Dermot Mulroney of “Young Guns”), who markets her goods.

No, everything between Amanda and Danny is strictly business. Mind you, Danny has a niece, River (Odeya Rush of “Spinning Man”), who is visiting him. Chris and River become friends. River introduces Chris to makeup. Pandemonium rages afterward when Amanda contends not only with her dead mother’s spirit but also her own daughter’s decision to attend college.

Later, Amanda discovers college entrance forms and is devastated that Chris hid them from her. At the same time, Chris begins to doubt her mother’s phobia with electricity. Eventually, Amanda’s evil mother wields enough power over her to make her into her own puppet to punish her granddaughter.

Comparably, “Umma” isn’t as sensational as “The Conjuring” and “Insidious” film franchises. Nevertheless, “Umma” delivers enough thrills and chills to keep you watching and wondering: Is our heroine deluding herself when she sees her mother?

Or is her mom a truly malevolent spirit? Keeping everything simple, subtle, and straightforward, Shim depicts our heroine’s titanic struggle with a mother she abhors and makes “Umma” a tenacious tale.


About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.