Umma (2022) poster

Umma (2022)



USA. 2022.


Director/Screenplay – Iris K. Shim, Producers – Zainab Azizi & Sam Raimi, Photography – Matt Flannery, Music – Roque Banos, Visual Effects Supervisor – Andrew Roberts, Visual Effects – Spin VFX (Supervisor – Greg Lev) & Temperamental VFX (Supervisor – Raoul Yorke Bolognini), Special Effects Supervisor – Richard Cordobes, Makeup Effects Design – Christopher Nelson, Production Design – Yong Ok Lee. Production Company – Stage 6 Films/Starlight Media Inc/Raimi Productions.


Sandra Oh (Amanda Williams/Soon-yu), Fivel Stewart (Chris Williams), Dermot Mulroney (Danny), Odeya Rush (River), Tom Yee (Mr Kang), MeeWha Alana Lee (Unma)


Amanda Williams, a South Korean emigrant, lives on a farm in the US countryside where she and her teenage daughter Chris run an apiary. Amanda suffers from electrophobia – a fear of electrical devices – and they live off the grid with no power. Amanda receives a visit from her uncle from South Korea to inform her that her mother has died. Amanda’s umma (or mother)’s ashes and effects are delivered. At the same time, Chris befriends a local girl River, while Amanda discovers that Chris has secretly sent for an application to enrol at university. Amanda believes that her umma is haunting her, driving her to treat Chris with the same cruel harshness that her mother treated her.

Umma was a feature film directorial debut for Iris K. Shim who had previously made the documentary The House of Suh (2010). Shim’s script is loosely on her own Asian-American background – although, unlike Sandra Oh’s character in the film, Shim is a second generation Korean and was born in the USA. (Shim also insists that the mother in the film is not based on her own mother). The film was picked up by Sam Raimi who produced it through his Raimi Pictures company. Also on board as an executive producer is Andre Øvredal, director of The Troll Hunter (2010), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) and The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023).

Umma has an unusual set-up. It is not the first horror film I have seen about bee-keeping – I had just watched Royal Jelly (2021) only a few weeks earlier and several months before that had watched The Swarm (2020) about a woman who develops an unnatural relationship with the locusts she raises alone on a farm. Moreover, the whole Korean immigrants running a farm in rural America leaves you with strong overtones of Minari (2020). Sandra Oh’s electrophobia makes for an unusual character facet – although I kept being reminded of Michael McKean’s memorable performance in the first three seasons of Better Call Saul (2015-22).

Sandra Oh and mother's ghost (MeeWha Alana Lee) in Umma (2022)
(front to back) Sandra Oh and mother’s ghost (MeeWha Alana Lee)

For a debuting fiction director who has never worked in the horror genre before, Iris K. Shim pulls off some accomplished effects. There are subtle scenes with indistinct figures appearing on the periphery of shots, particularly of someone sitting out of focus in the background as the uncle visits, or of traces of light momentarily affecting the surrounding air as Sandra Oh opens the box. There’s an undeniably effective shot where Sandra Oh thinks she sees Umma in front of her through the veil of her beekeeper’s mask but the figure has vanished when she lifts her veil. Not to mention the spooky appearances of figures in wooden masks, which reminds of something out of Oni Baba (1964).

Just as much as it is a horror film, Umma feels like some kind of personal story. It is a story about a clash of cultures, between Americanisation and Korean tradition, between the struggle to free oneself from toxic parenting only to find one passing the same patterns on to the next generation. The emotional roots of the film rest in the angry and embittered fight that we see playing out. It is certainly a more substantial and interesting development than we gets in most Ghost Stories in the US and UK, which are almost always about innocents encountering atrocities from the past crying out for closure in the present.

Trailer here

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