In a world of more opportunity for those who don’t all fit the same straight white male checklist, there are a plethora of new and exciting perspectives being shown by budding new filmmakers, making the film world a more interesting and inclusive one to exist within. Even when they aren’t new faces, we often get established presences within the industry who haven’t been able to properly make projects explicitly about their cultures and traditions and they are getting the chance to as well. This is the meeting point for the inception of Umma (엄마), with Golden Globe/SAG Award-winning actress and household name Sandra Oh (Turning Red) teaming up with budding horror filmmaker Iris K. Shim (The House of Suh) to create a supernatural tale regarding parental trauma and of traditional Korean ancestral funeral rites. In an industry where a film with this specific of a cultural focus would’ve been passed over a decade prior for not being “universal” enough (something many critics not of the cultures being represented in film still complain about today), the fact that a major studio conglomerate like Sony Pictures would take on such a project feels like a major step forward.
Unfortunately, however…there’s a catch. While Umma gained the type of recognition that comes with the Sony branding as well as with the interest of Sam Raimi as executive producer, it unfortunately also fell victim to Sony’s seeing Umma, with all of its pure intentions and unique ideas, as another way to peddle out a quick, cheap horror film. And despite the best efforts of gambling on the part of Oh and Shim, the house always wins, even if that means we, as viewers, lose.
Soo-hyun, now going under the alias Amanda (Sandra Oh), is a Korean-American woman living a remote life off-the-grid on her bee farm with her teenage daughter, Chris (Fivel Stewart). When Amanda is told by her estranged uncle that her mother, or “umma” has passed away, and is given her ashes, she initially tries to suppress her feelings on the matter. But as Chris begins to exert more independence over her overprotective parenting, Amanda begins to reckon with the trauma inflicted upon her by her abusive mother as the malevolent spirit of her mother begins haunting their once peaceful farm.
There is good to be found in Umma, not least from the skilled performances at the center from Oh and Stewart who try their damndest to make good work out of a script with some truly awful dialogue. It speaks greatly to their (arguably misplaced, but I digress) passion to make this project good. They have good chemistry, and despite finding their shallow characters in very un-scary situations, there is another movie out there in the æther that I want to see them in together.
In fact, I really would love to see what the original treatment and vision for Umma looked like, because I’m fascinated by how unique of an approach that Shim seemingly wants to take with the concept of this film, despite its final product feeling like a standard, straight-to-video haunted house film completely reliant on derivative jump scares and “trailer moments.” (Umma, despite being released theatrically, was released by Sony’s Stage 6 Films brand, known primarily for straight-to-video releases.) There is absolutely a good movie to be found here somewhere deep within, but when the time and budget given from a studio is targeted to make something cheap and lazy, there isn’t much to be done to prevent it from feeling cheap and lazy.
Mercifully, Umma only clocks in at an 83-minute runtime with credits, and while it certainly doesn’t understay its welcome, so much of Umma’s final act feels greatly half-baked in contrast to the film’s first two, equally as derivative, but much more promising, acts. There’s always a glimmer of hope that eventually the film is going to take a turn and redeem itself into something as clever as it sounds like it could be, but that never happens.
Sony’s Blu-ray release for Umma is very unimpressive as well, signaling the studio’s confidence in a film that they seemingly forced their hand into and would want to drop as quietly as possible. Picture quality, while clear, is unspectacular during the film’s daytime scenes, completely loses all sense of definition in its criminally lit nighttime sequences, which as you can imagine for a supernatural horror film, consists of a majority of the film. It’s murky, ugly, and completely hard to make out, even while watching the film on a 4K display in darkness (Umma, unsurprisingly, does not have a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release, though I’d be interested to see if HDR would help the black levels in this to create something more discernable). Audio is fine and is also an unspectacular DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Occasional atmospherics permeate their way through the surrounds, but not nearly enough for a film such as this, though the bass of the copious jump-scares, predictable as they may be, is admirable.
Sony has chosen not to include any special features on this Blu-ray release apart from trailers for other Sony Pictures releases.
Umma rather tragically forgoes any meaningful characterization in lieu of focusing primarily on the horror of childhood trauma for audiences to be spooked by, and even more tragically, the horror of Umma isn’t particularly scary at all. That leaves the rest of the film propped up on good intentions, and the hope that two good performances from Oh and Stewart can keep something like this afloat (spoiler alert: they cannot). What remains is a regrettably standard B-horror film that views its audience as a lowest common denominator, satisfied with jump-scares and ghastly CGI spirits. It never digs into the admittedly interesting Korean burial rites that lend themselves so wonderfully to the idea of supernatural horror. I really hate bad horror films, but when a bad horror film holds so much potential for something new and engrossing to be made, only to be substituted for the most conventional approach imaginable — that’s just heartbreaking.
Available on digital May 10th, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD May 24th, 2022.
For more information, head to Sony Picture’s official Umma webpage.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.