Written and directed by Iris K. Shim, Amanda and her daughter live a quiet life on an American farm, but when the remains of her estranged mother arrive from Korea, Amanda becomes haunted by the fear of turning into her own mother. Starring: Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, MeeWha Alana Lee and Tom Yi.
Sandra Oh is unquestionably the level of actress that many people worldwide will watch a film solely because she’s in it, and for good reason. Oh is not an actress that disappoints, no matter the role she brings a level of commitment and depth which is relentlessly compelling. Umma is no exception, she gives a great performance, slowly peeling back the layers of Amanda and revealing the fractures which form who she is. Fivel Stewart does well alongside her, there may not be as much to her character with her being so young and growing up in mostly isolation, but she’s sympathetic and sweet, then brings in all the usual teenage rebellion. Dermot Mulroney, Odeya Rush, MeeWha Alana Lee and Tom Yi similarly all have something to add, it’s a closed in story focused on these two women but each of the supporting actors still all make their own individual impression.
Initially, the set-up feels fairly reminiscent of Aneesh Chaganty’s Run, mother and daughter living a suspiciously remote life and the daughter coincidently not majorly questioning that until now. For the most part, the story is done well, it creates compelling characters and keeps you on the edge, waiting for its darker side to unfold. However, the progression isn’t handled effectively, spending the majority of its time building to a moment which is then short lived. The film’s core issues are ultimately resolved far too quickly, leaving you feeling unsatisfied and that it had more to offer. Its roots lie in family and abuse, they’re well chosen and have a classic feel of escaping your past but developing them so late, only does them a disservice.
One of the key strengths of this film is clear almost immediately, with its use of framing as well as the variety of angles, Iris K. Shim shows a definite skill of building a suspicious and mysterious atmosphere. Shim’s style does a fantastic job of building suspense and tension, it draws you in easily. However, when it finally enters its finale, the cracks do start to appear, a few choices to draw out its supernatural side are overt. It initially introduces the bizarre elements well, but tries to ramp things up for its ending and it’s a messy transition. Although, they’re only a minimal exception to the otherwise extremely strong style to Shim’s direction throughout.
Umma perfectly sets the stage for its mysterious story of a hidden past but lets itself down in the end. The atmosphere is strong, it pulls out the satisfying stops to keep you hooked but chooses to reveal its secrets far too late and far too quickly. It’s unfortunate as the superb performance from Sandra Oh and the great direction from Iris K. Shim brought fantastic potential, but it couldn’t quite play out in a way that did itself justice.