I know disliking critics is hardly a hot take, but seriously: whatever with those guys. And too much of fan culture ends up mirroring critics. Such bland, boyey tastes all around. I’m hitting pause on another post about spooky gay crushes and time-traveling to praise a new movie--Umma kills it! Umma is the good basic horror movie for the girls and the gays, in theaters at the time of this writing (probs on streaming by the time you’re reading this/i even post it). Seems like it's attracting negative reviews which makes me sad. Stop reading this and see it if you haven’t. As always, i’ll spoil.
Umma is an odd blend of moods, a prestigey horror with schlock jump scares and, i mean this like a compliment, a look of low production value. It’s not so polished, languorously edited, and picture-perfect compositional as something like The Vitch, Hereditery, or, most recently, X (all movies i didn’t like so i won’t go into them to remain in theme with my blog’s positive title).
As a mommy-is-scary movie, Umma comes across like the cheaper cousin of The Babadook, although it's more complex thematically. I feel like writer-director Iris K. Shim maybe had her sights on A24 when initially concocting her script, but thankfully the project was instead picked up by producer Sam Raimi, a gentleman of taste and distinction. That’s not completely sarcastic! After all, his producing credits include the finest television series of all time, Xena: Warrior Princess. Our guy Sam has a track record of bringing it with the delights. I like to imagine him benignly overseeing the inclusion of all those cartoonish whoosh sound effects that occasionally grace Umma. If this was an A24 movie it would probably be (or feel like) a half hour longer, padded with ostentatious drama and tiresome ye olde misogyny (i’m looking at you Hereditary and The Vitch). I forget who i saw tweet something like this (i thiiiiink Jenny Nicholson) but we desperately need a Scream style satire of modern prestigious horror. I was kinda hoping Scream 2022 would be that, partially because it would be a new direction for the franchise, and i was disappointed when it merely name-dropped that type of movie without playing with their cliches and tropes.
Like a lot of prestige horror, Umma is a bleak-minded, well-acted family drama where psychological tension finds expression in spooky shit. Sandra Oh is Amanda, a second-generation immigrant woman on the verge of several nervous breakdowns: her long separated Korean mom recently ate it and she can’t bring herself to literally bury the past; she remains triggered by electricity to the point of living off the grid, because her now dead mom livewire tortured her when she was a kid, and the empty nest looms as her daughter Chris considers college against her expressed desire she remain home and continue assisting her with the maintenance of beehives for a folksy honey business.
Amanda’s abusive mom enjoys a post-death self-realization as an intense haunt after Amanda receives a quick visit from an estranged relative. Stern uncle so-and-so delivers a chest containing the matriarch's ashes. This chest of ominous portent contains some mementos as well, like a traditional Korean robe and mask. Not surprisingly, these items quickly start going off most supernaturally.
There’s a great moment late in the movie when Amanda, in a fit, half-assedly digs a hole and shoves in the chest, forgetting to include the robe. Then, as she tries to walk away, the fully anthropomorphized and animated ghost robe jump scares out at her. With a charmingly angry stride, ghost robe drags her by the foot right on back to that piece of shit shallow grave, saying “you call that a burial! I’ll show you a burial!” So good! In these divisive times, ghost robe may not be the dom hero we want, but she’s the dom hero we deserve. What can i say, i have a crush. Bury me mommy! Drag me to hell!
Although she escapes the viciously matronly clasp of ghost robe, Sandra Oh eventually ends up pulled underground by scary mom, where she confronts her person-to-person, mama e mama, in a dreamy memory space. It’s a well done dramatic moment. There’s no tidy resolution, or even mutual acceptance. All Amanda gains is an understanding of her mom as a full person, someone beyond an all-powerful tormentor, someone smaller and sadder than she imagined. Despite the ghost’s tearful protests, Amanda departs from her pain just as she did in real life. Also, this scene opens with focus on a framed photograph of Amanda’s umma helping her blow out birthday cake candles and it's quietly heartbreaking.
I love this imagery of mom’s ghost pulling you into a two-sided grave, at once the grave of your past and the grave of her lonely pain. This scene ends with the movie’s most stylish flourish: an upside-down shot of Amanda emerging from her mother’s grave beneath the moon, the frame rotating rightside-up as she crawls out. Call it obvious but i love the rebirth symbolism. Then again, as i’m pretty sure i’ve already written, any yanic symbolism almost always makes me happy.
So Amanda escapes ghost mom’s wrath with will power, maybe the biggest suggestion that the haunt is a manifestation of her traumatized mind. I don’t always go for this sort of reality ambiguity but i liked it a lot in this. The movie claws deep into the loud resonances of Amanda reinserting her mom’s presence into her life. It’s a delicate subject handled carefully: Iris K. Shim manages to show the danger of redeploying childhood traumas as adult survivors without suggesting deeply traumatized people are broken or more likely to be crazy abusive.
I haven’t written much about Chris yet, but this is fully a three generational story. Chris never reacts to anything directly supernatural, and she’s increasingly convinced her mom’s gone full psychobitch. For her, grandma is a non-supernatural ghost, a presence channeled by her mom’s insecurities and possessive tendencies.
Shim is smart enough to portray the aftershocks of abuse appearing not as more abuse, but as nervous kindness. Faced with the prospect of Chris abandoning her, just as she abandoned her mom, Amanda ends up hardcore guilting her, claiming she went into the honey business because littler Chris wanted to have beehives. As if a child should be held forever responsible for influencing her mom’s career choice! You wanted to tend to beehives, brat, now you can do it for the rest of your life
This guilting gets at maybe my favorite insight of Umma: Amanda is a loving, attentive mother, but this kindness is rooted in the same needy dominance that motivated her own mother’s abuse. An idea best expressed in a moment where the bees, apparently puppetered by our titular umma, densely clump against a window in the vague form of that haunted mask from the chest. Scary bees are great by the way.
I don’t know, i feel like i don’t have much more to say about this good scary movie, and there’s so much to write about thematically that i’m overwhelmed. Like, this movie’s relationship with immigration and eastern v western values is a subject i guess i won’t touch. I’ll wind up with a simple catalog of little details i appreciated: the whole movie’s almost entirely set in an isolated house and i enjoy a good bottle ep; really loved the baby chick stomped by ghost mom, the feminie urge to crush precious cute little guys; the abundance of jump scares; nice quiet scene where Chris’ new (and only) peer friend assures her she’s interesting and will find a place in the world outside of their spare rural community (it made me tear up!); and for some extra-textuality, there was a teen couple having a classic americana date in the row i sat in, the girl even loudly whispered “i’m scared!” while gripping onto her boy, it was very cute.