The pieces of Umma’s puzzle never really come together

Fivel Stewart stars in Stage 6 Films UMMA. Photo by: Saeed Adyani
Fivel Stewart stars in Stage 6 Films UMMA. Photo by: Saeed Adyani /

Netflix’s Sandra Oh lead Korean-American psychological horror film Umma backs away from every opportunity to be something good and scary – and there are many.  With the success of Netflix’s Squid Game and All of Us Are Dead, Korean horror is a hot ticket right now, and with such an accredited actress at the helm of a Raimi Productions movie, Umma should have been a huge win.  So what went wrong?

Umma begins with a nightmare, and tells a lot of backstory in the opening credits, which is impossible to know upon first viewing.  The story picks up sixteen years later at a peaceful farm/grove where Amanda (Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve), and daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart, Atypical) live off the grid together.  The two of them raise chickens and bees together, selling the honey from the bees and doing the books for local retailer Danny played by Dermont Mulroney (The Purge series) to make ends meet.  He is their only contact with the outside world.  Amanda is allergic to electricity and none is allowed beyond a certain distance from the house – ALL electricity is banned.

Idyllic living is thrown for a loop when Amanda’s uncle shows up with her estranged mother’s remains.  He warns her that if she does not give the remains their proper deference due, her mother’s rage will haunt her.  Not believing in superstition (and clearly having disregarded her Korean roots long ago), she throws the remains unceremoniously in the basement – but sure enough, strange things begin to happen.  This becomes one of those movies where you ask yourself – is this really happening, or is she mental?  And honestly, I’m so tired of that trope.

Amanda stands in the foreground holding up a lantern with her back to what appears to be a ghost in Korean dress behind her
Sandra Oh stars in Stage 6 Films UMMA. Photo by: Saeed Adyani /

Umma just doesn’t have follow through

Umma has the opportunity at many points to do MORE.  Amanda’s history of abuse with her mother is only hinted at or told in dysmorphic dreams and memories.  Her electricity “allergy” has a single flimsy root cause, and we never see her exhibit any symptoms – so why does her sixteen-year-old daughter never question it?  The “haunting” by her mother is relayed in snippets of Korean culture explained by Amanda as briefly as possible – this is what this is called and why it’s done, no discussion.  We see hints of a Kumiho (which I thought would turn out to be a coyote), and one even makes a brief appearance, but I only knew what it was from watching Lovecraft Country – it is NEVER EXPLAINED.  Amanda and Chris have brief conflicts, but they are so quick, and there is no sign of there ever being strife between them prior to this point – but a mother and daughter with no one but each other cannot possibly go through puberty without conflict!

Sandra Oh of course gives a wonderful performance as Amanda, she’s a brilliant actress – I don’t know if anyone else could do so much with so little.  I loved Fivel Stewart in Atypical, and I was happy to see her in something else, but Chris has so very little to do other than be shocked at everything happening around her because her mother has kept her completely in the dark her entire life – she and Sandra Oh do have good chemistry.  Danny is a throwaway character, and Amanda’s mother, simply called “mother” has one scene where she has anything to do.  It’s a good scene, one of the best in the movie, but it’s not enough.  Nothing is enough in Umma.

I had such high hopes for this movie, but ultimately sighed at everything it could have been, but wasn’t.  Umma was originally released in March and premiered on Netflix July 16th.  If you’re interested in a bit of Korean culture and love Sandra Oh, give it a try, otherwise – yawn.

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Did you enjoy Umma?  Let me know in the comments!