Thanks to one dumb critic’s opinion and the Twitter-storm that their review of Pixar’s Turning Red ignited last week, the topic of “Universality” with regards to Immigrant Stories has recently been chewed over a lot by those of us who do such chewing. Specifically Asian stories too, and with the disorienting rise in hate crimes towards Asians around the globe for the past two years it’s probably a useful conversation to be having. Just insofar as it’s met with a loud, swift, and thorough, “Yeah you’re a part of the problem if you can’t see yourself reflected just fine in Asian stories, bro,” that is. And so entering the chat this weekend we have the Korean-American horror flick Umma, starring the always-fierce and welcome presence of Sandra Oh (who coincidentally voiced the mother in Turning Red too)—so how does our not-so-sweet (but still turning things red) Umma fare?
“Umma” it should be noted is Korean for “Mommy,” and Umma is full of ‘em, although I would forgive you if you at least momentarily picture Octavia Spencer dancing in a basement with a group of teenagers during the opening credits here when the “Ma” part of the “Umma” title turns red. (And you can go ahead and sign me up for the “Ma Cinematic Universe” right now, please and thank you.) Oh is playing a biological mommy though—her Amanda is a first-generation Korean-American mother who’s raising her sweet teenaged daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) on a sprawling, isolated bee farm in rural California. (And yes my fellow melissophobes, you should prepare themselves for some icky bee action.) Allergic to electricity (although the opening scene keys us in that it’s maybe more of a psychosomatic issue), Amanda keeps her little family firmly off the grid —no modern cars, no TVs, no internet, and most definitely no cell phones.
That’s a decent sleight-of-hand to solve the “cell phone problem” as far as horror movies set in a modern day setting are concerned—the absence of a quick call to the authorities always demands too much suspension of disbelief these days—and an electric tension does hum underneath Umma thanks to that absence and our knowledge of it as such. The shoe-drop of the power turning on—a flip of the switch to fright, if you will!—is always buzzing down below, threatening to zap an infernal tormented zap at any second. And a scene where Oh huddles in the corner of her bedroom during a lightning storm is wonderfully acted by Oh, because of course it is; she’s always such a damn pleasure to watch. But like so much of Umma that threat, and too many like it, fizzles out before it can totally fire up.
Amanda seems a good, if lightly smothering, mother, so the real scares only start sneaking into their rural California bee farm when a car rolls down the driveway and it’s Amanda’s Umma (MeeWha Alana Lee) coming a’callin. Well, technically it’s Amanda’s uncle (Tom Yi, giving off great patriarchal sneer in a couple of short scenes). But he’s got Amanda’s Umma’s remains and some choice items of hers (a ceremonial dress, a hella creepy mask, a music box because of course a music box) in a suitcase, which he delivers, like an ancient curse, to the farm. Turns out that Umma has just recently died all alone back in Korea, abandoned by her daughter. And wouldn’t you know it her spirit in that urn doesn’t seem too pleased with this outcome?
We come to understand why Umma went back, and why Amanda abandoned here, as themes of assimilation and tradition are woven throughout the film—some in moving ways, and some in ways that undermine themselves. Umma’s immigrant story once we learn it is actually very moving, helped no doubt by Oh’s stirring delivery of it in a mid-film monologue as Amanda fears, with very good reason, that she’s becoming just like dear old mom. But emotional moments like that find themselves undone as often as they’re done by the bland genre demands that first-time writer-director Iris K. Shim shovels upon among them—I find myself surprised to admit this movie might have worked better as a straight drama than it does a horror film?
If the horror stuff were richer and more complicated, or more coherent, then perhaps that wouldn’t be the case. But instead, we’re dealt a lot of warmed-over K-Horror visuals (long-haired suddenly-fast CG ghosts with twisted faces and the like) that we’ve seen too many times before to have a whole lot of impact, even as Oh’s eyes give great terror responding to them. Like a snarling nine-tailed fox (called “gumiho” in Korean) is glimpsed at one point, but it lands with more of a “Huh?” than it does a shriek because its presence, while alluded to via one of Umma’s scarves, is given no weight. No place in the story to explain itself.
Still Oh, Stewart, and Lee are all very good, and since I understand that these sorts of movies get sold on the genre money that makes them possible I’ll suffer through some generic ghost tropes if it lets me watch see three generations of Asian women wrestle with what it means to leave behind a culture, to straddle another, and to be dragged into a grave by one that will not let go. A movie like Minari (or even Remi Weekes’s smashing horror flick His House about Sudanese immigrants) doesn’t come along every day, so we make due.