“Umma” opened for a minute…and a minute only, last spring during its theatrical release. But even under the best of circumstances, with no pandemic, it had a limited ceiling.
It’s a quality horror film seriously short of frights, with some of those ready-made jolts mishandled by writer-director Iris K. Shim, a long-time production assistant and sometime editor making her writing and directing debut. The seriously deflating finale was a final bit of “mishandling” that ensured word of mouth on “Umma” wouldn’t be good.
But the presence of Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Odeya Rush and Dermot Mulroney in the cast guarantees that the performances will be top notch. The production design, the novel Koreans-in-America story and the setting also contribute to the feeling that this is a “quality” production that has promise, even if that promise isn’t fulfilled.
Oh plays Amanda, a solitary beekeeper in rural Southern California living with her teen daughter (Stewart, of TV’s “Atypical” and “Roar”) Chrissy, producing honey that’s becoming an artisanal Internet phenomenon thanks to their friendly local feed store shopkeeper (Mulroney).
But that sign on the gate, to shut off your car engine and turn off your cell phone, isn’t for the bees, it turns out. Electricity makes Amanda sick, her daughter explains. There’s no power in the house, and anything electrical that Mom doesn’t want within her field of view she totes down to the root cellar and locks away.
Home-schooled Chrissy is only reminded of what she’s missing out on when she bikes to town, to shop at the store of their only friend, Danny (Mulroney).
A prologue has warned us that something about Mom’s past haunts her. When a Korean stranger shows up at their door, we start to figure that something out. Amanda’s Umma, “mother,” has died. Her stern, judgmental uncle (Tom Yi) has traveled far to track her down and let her know.
“A child’s obligation is to her parents,” he snaps, in Korean. Her mother isn’t just dead, she is “angry” and cursed. “You know what she’s capable of.”
Oh, and here’s her suitcase, with her mementoes and her ashes in it. Byeeee.
“Umma” is about Amanda’s unhappy past, her chilling present and Chrissy’s slow realization that Mom is going through some things, and they’re supernatural in nature. As the ghost of Umma (MeeWha Alana Lee) hisses to Amanda, “We starred as one, and we’ll END as one!”
Anybody who’s ever paid attention to a horror film knows how to manufacture jolting frights — a combination of lens, shots, edits and sound effects or music. But Shim has no idea how to build suspense, something she fritters away, time and again as Amanda comes under ghostly attack and Chrissy — shielded from it, or blind to it — doesn’t have a clue.
The script is on its firmest ground laying out its Asian mother-daughter connection, sacrifice and “obligation” tropes. There’s a running theme of “disobedient girl” running from mother to Chrissy, who rebels by sniffing around, finding evidence of granny and “testing” theories about Mother Amanda as she does.
But the scattered frights in this can’t-miss setting — a remote farmhouse — never build towards anything. The lack of involvement of old friend Danny is forgivable, but the presence of his niece, a new “friend” for Chrissy (Odeya Rush) doesn’t pay off. This slow and scenic thriller gives the impression that a lot was left out, either in the script or edited out before release.
“Umma” turns out to be a “quality” thriller that can’t be bothered to get down and dirty and scary.
Rating: PG-13 for terror, brief strong language and some thematic elements
Cast: Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Odeya Rush, Tom Yi, MeeWha Alana Lee and Dermot Mulroney
Credits: Scripted and directed by Iris K. Shim. A Sony release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:23