An elderly Korean grandmother arrives to join her family on a remote American farm and soon causes trouble. No, I’m not talking about Minari, unfortunately, but rather the new Sam Raimi-produced horror film in which Sandra Oh experiences severe mommy issues. While the veteran actress does her best to infuse Umma (Korean for “mommy”) with some psychological depth to go along with its jump scares, this debut feature written and directed by Iris K. Shim proves the sort of minor chiller best experienced on late-night cable.
In this case, the grandmother happens to be dead, although that doesn’t stop her from popping up periodically (in the stern form of MeeWha Alana Lee) to wreak havoc on the lives of her daughter Amanda (Oh) and granddaughter Chris (Fivel Stewart, Atypical). Not that it’s hard to do, since the two seem to be already living a strange existence, supporting themselves on honey from their expansive bee colonies and living off the grid because Amanda apparently becomes ill if she’s anywhere near electricity. The two have formed a close, solitary bond, interrupted only by the occasional appearances of a friendly local (Dermot Mulroney, providing low-key gravitas) who sells their wares online. Although Fivel is approaching college age, she has no friends — and even if she did, she’d have no way of communicating with them since she has no cell phone.
Oh tries, but the movie’s mediocre.
Their peaceful life together is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Amanda’s uncle (Tom Yi) from Korea, who comes bearing a strange gift — a large box containing her recently deceased mother’s few possessions, as well as her ashes. Amanda, long estranged from her “umma,” wants no part of it, and for good reason, since bad things begin to happen not long after her uncle leaves. It seems that mother and daughter have some unfinished emotional business, which manifests itself by Amanda’s umma making eerie appearances and hectoring her daughter (in subtitled Korean).
“We started as one, and we’ll end as one,” Umma ominously warns Amanda as she seems to be slowly taking possession of her.
The film’s familiar horror elements are less interesting than the quiet dramatic moments in which Chris starts to come out of her shell with the aid of the business associate’s visiting niece (Odeya Rush), who befriends her and opens her eyes to the idea that her mother’s supposed allergy to electricity may be imaginary. Stewart’s sensitive performance as the confused daughter who loves her mother but yearns to establish her own life gives the proceedings some much-needed heart.
Writer-director Shin’s labored attempts to use genre tropes to explore the complexities of domineering mother-daughter relationships never fully develops. Plot elements are often left dangling and the storyline borders on incoherent at times, as if many scenes had been left on the cutting room floor (the film runs a brief 83 minutes including credits, which makes it seem less tight than choppy). There are more than a few scarily arresting moments, such as Amanda’s umma seemingly attempting to drag her daughter with her into her grave, but they never coalesce into a consistent visual style.
Oh, who’s on the other end of complicated mother/daughter relationship issues in the current Pixar release Turning Red, delivers a fully committed performance, gamely going through the physically demanding horror film paces and being unafraid to make her character sometimes unsympathetic. But her strong efforts are not enough to lift Umma above its mediocre B-movie status.