Umma Review – Sandra Oh is haunted by new ideas and bad tropes
Bloody disgusting Ouma the review is spoiler-free.
Writer/director Iris K.Shimthe first feature film by, Ouma works as a rare example of a film that would have been better served without the horror. Themes of cultural identity, heritage, abuse, complex mother-daughter relationships and generational abuse present fertile ground for exploration and conflict. It’s neglected, however, buckling under the weight of conventional horror clichés, ineffectual jump scares, a lack of tension, and disjointed storytelling.
Amanda (Sandra Oh) lives a simple, quiet life on a rural farm with her teenage daughter Chrissy (Fivel Stewart). She is a first-generation Korean American who has made a successful life selling the honey she harvests with Chrissy. She is also out of touch with the world, except for local store owner and friend Danny (Dermot Mulroney). This is by design; a traumatic past has caused Amanda to turn her back on her family, especially her abusive umma (mother). The residual trauma means that Amanda refuses to allow electricity into her vicinity, resulting in a sheltered, off-grid existence. Then her uncle shows up one day with her mother’s remains, warning her to honor her ancestors and give umma a proper burial lest she anger her mother’s spirit.
But Amanda insists on ignoring her until she erupts and threatens to take control.
Ouma constantly introduces fascinating ideas but never knows what to do with them in the genre space. Amanda’s rejection of her heritage and her daughter’s upbringing utterly alienated from it make it a compelling subject, but Shim struggles to wed it to horror. Instead of constant progression, Ouma instead offers messy, jerky edits and awkward scene transitions that disorient. Amanda goes from doting mother to crazy and back again in the blink of an eye, without much of a trigger. To his credit, Oh gives it his all no matter what. Shim confuses screaming music cues with creating tension, and haunted house jump scares are book-right and outdated. A quick rush of a ghastly figure here, or ghostly figures lurking in the shadows, are the only fleeting moments to indicate why Amanda goes from well-adjusted to completely unhinged.
Shim’s heavy focus on conventional horror cliches means the more exciting ideas are underdeveloped to the detriment. Fleeting mentions of gwishin or visions of a nine-tailed gumiho are never explained. These nods to a richer, unexplored mythology tease the potential of what could have been.
This restraint also extends to the characters. Thanks to the flashback opening, we immediately know why Amanda is haunted by her past and why she harbors a visceral aversion to electricity. We know she loves her daughter and that Chrissy is finally coming to an age where she would like to leave the nest. Beyond that, however, Shim struggles to flesh them out and develop them further, which sums up Amanda’s arc. When the final confrontation arrives, it ends with a silent moan and a “is that it?”
There is a very intangible quality about Ouma. The ideas and takeaways are easy to grasp, but the execution falls flat. Shim attempts to reconcile Chrissy leaving mom behind with mom ultimately dealing with her haunted past, but makes this literal haunting with generic haunted house tropes instead. The result is a sparse story with good ideas but not much else.
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