“Umma” review: Sandra Oh experiences a maternal nightmare


Mother-daughter relationships can be complicated. And depending on the shades of that complication, the thought of turning into your mother likely ranges from “unhappy” to “worst nightmare ever.”

In “Umma,” writer-director Iris K. Shim unfolds a dynamic that falls into the latter category. The cross-generational supernatural thriller follows Amanda (an always amazing Sandra Oh), a woman living fairly simply on a remote apiary with her homeschooled teenage daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart).

Her seemingly peaceful life is shattered when Amanda’s uncle arrives from Korea to deliver the remains of her estranged mother – her ummah. And as if the unwelcome package wasn’t enough, the uncle adds a terse judgment on how Amanda chose to live her life and raise her daughter. Chris, on the other hand, is surprised to learn that her mother has kept so much of her past a secret.

Amanda, who is already emotionally haunted by the memories of her Ummah, then also experiences a supernatural haunting. And it becomes easier to see that while Amanda’s relationships with her ummah and Chris are different, they are both flawed in their own way.

The film’s PG-13 rating means the visual horror is never too gruesome, with many of the horrors taking advantage of the atmospheric tension made possible by Amanda’s visceral fear of electricity. Think classic gothic horror rather than ghastly, over-the-top occult. But that’s enough to keep easily spooked viewers like me nervous as the story progresses.

Even more poignant is the exploration of how traumas processed and experienced by two generations of mothers are linked. Umma isn’t the only film to be released this month starring Oh in exploring complex mother-daughter relationships in the Asian diaspora (see: “Blushing”), but by focusing the story on Amanda , Shim sharply emphasizes the connection between what a person is like when they are mothered and how they are mothered through a Korean-American lens.

“Umma” shows that horror remains an effective space to engage with more violent issues. While cultural idiosyncrasies may differ, the weight of parental expectations that instill a sense of duty and induce guilt is familiar, particularly for children of immigrants. Painting parents as supernatural monsters is one way of addressing how monstrous and enduring that can be.

What I appreciate most about Ummah is that understanding and forgiveness are not idealized. Amanda can see the difficulties her ummah has experienced both as an immigrant and as a woman bound by specific cultural expectations. But knowing that there is a reason for the pain their Ummah has caused does not excuse or negate that pain and its consequences.


Rated: PG-13, for terror, short swear words and some thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes

Play: In general release from March ’18

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-03-17/umma-mother-sandra-oh-iris-k-shim-review “Umma” review: Sandra Oh experiences a maternal nightmare

Caroline Bleakley

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