Review: ‘Umma’ (2022), starring Sandra Oh

March 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Fivel Stewart and Sandra Oh in “Umma” (Photo by Saeed Adyani/Stage 6 Films)

“Umma” (2022)

Directed by Iris K. Shim

Some language in Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of the U.S., the horror film “Umma” features a cast of Asian and white characters representing the working-class ad middle-class.

Culture Clash: A single mother, who works as a beekeeper/honey merchant, is haunted by memories of her abusive mother. 

Culture Audience: “Umma” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Sandra Oh, whose talent is wasted in this boring and predictable horror movie.

Tom Yi and Sandra Oh in “Umma” (Photo by Saeed Adyani/Stage 6 Films)

In the forgettable and formulaic horror flick “Umma,” the main character is a beekeeper with mother issues. Bees in a hive have more purpose and intelligence (and can scare more people) than this silly mess of a film. So much of “Umma” is a waste: A waste of a talented cast. A waste of a potentially good idea for a horror story. And a waste of time to anyone who watches this disappointing flop.

Written and directed by Iris K. Shim, “Umma” gets its title from the Korean word for “mother.” That’s because “mother issues” are at the center of a Korean American family haunted by abuse. “Umma” takes place in an unnamed part of the U.S. but was actually filmed in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

In “Umma,” Amanda (played by Sandra Oh) is the only child of Korean immigrants, who are now deceased. Amanda is a single mother to a daughter named Chris (played by Fivel Stewart), nicknamed Chrissy, who’s about 17 years old. Amanda is a beekeeper/honey maker who owns a small business called Chrissy’s Honey Bees, where Amanda and Chris are the only workers.

Most of their honey is sold online, with help from Amanda’s friend Danny (played by Dermot Mulroney), who owns a hardware store not too far away and who manages the website and social media for Chrissy’s Honey Bees. Business has recently been doing so well for Chrissy’s Honey Bees, many of the products are selling out. Danny tells Amanda that she might have to hire more people to help her keep up with customer demand.

Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Amanda started this business only because Chris became obsessed with bees, and Amanda wanted a way to have a closer bond with her daughter. Amanda previously had a less risky and more financially stable job as an accountant, and she had to overcome her fear of bees to start this business. Because of this personal sacrifice, Amanda expects Chris to work with her in the business as long as possible.

Amanda is extremely protective and controlling of Chris, who has been homeschooled her entire life and has no friends. Chris’ father is never seen or mentioned in the movie, and he’s never been involved in raising her. Later in the movie, when someone asks Amanda where her husband is, she replies defiantly that she’s never felt the need to have a husband.

Amanda is deeply fearful of electrical appliances and distrustful of modern technology—so much so that she doesn’t allow Chris to have a smartphone. Chris has to make do with an outdated mobile flip phone. And needless to say, there are no TVs or computers in their house, which is an isolated, rural area. Of course it’s in a remote area. This is a horror movie, but the scares in “Umma” are underwhelming.

The opening scene of “Umma” shows why Amanda has a fear of electrical appliances: As a child, Amanda’s domineering mother would physically abuse her with heated electrical wires. This abuse is not shown in graphic detail in the movie’s flashbacks, but enough is shown for viewers to know what’s happening. Hana Marie Kim portrays Amanda as a child in these flashbacks.

Amanda’s family history is revealed in bits and pieces through conversations and flashbacks. Amanda’s parents had a happy marriage until they moved from Korea to the United States. Amanda’s mother (played by MeeWha Alana Lee) became depressed and difficult to the point where Amanda’s father couldn’t take it anymore, and he abandoned his wife and daughter. (Amanda’s father is never shown in the movie.)

Amanda’s mother then became increasingly paranoid that Amanda would leave her. In the flashback shown in the movie’s opening scene, a young Amanda can be heard wailing in fear, “Umma, I promise I won’t run away again,” before she can be heard screaming as her mother inflicts some violent abuse on her. Expect to see several scenes of Amanda waking up from nightmares.

You know where all of this is going, of course. Amanda is afraid that she’ll end up just like her mother. Amanda has lied to Chris about her family background, by telling Chris that she was raised by two people named Gloria and Bill, who died before Chris was born. The movie shows whether or not Chris finds out the truth. Amanda is also upset that Chris intends to apply for admission to West Mesa University, which is in another state.

In the meantime, Amanda unexpectedly gets a visit from someone she doesn’t want to see: Her mother’s brother (played by Tom Yi), who does not have a name in the movie. However, he knows Amanda by her Korean birth name: Soo-Hyun, which is a name that Amanda hasn’t used since her very unhappy childhood.

What’s the reason for this unannounced visit from Amanda’s uncle? After he scolds her for not being in touch with the family and for making it difficult to find her, he tells Amanda that Amanda’s mother died a few months earlier. He’s there to deliver a small trunk that has her mother’s ashes and several of her mother’s most treasured belongings. One of these items is a Hahoetal, which is a Korean death mask.

It’s at this point in the movie that you know the ghost of Amanda’s mother will begin haunting Amanda’s home and the surrounding property. But does this ghost really exist? Or is she a figment of Amanda’s imagination? The movie wastes a lot of time with predictable jump scares in a weak attempt to confuse viewers over what’s real and what might be Amanda’s delusions.

And it should come as no surprise that it’s yet another horror movie where the main character’s mental stability is questioned because this person claims to be seeing an evil spirit. But what other people see is Amanda having blackouts while sometimes wearing her mother’s clothes. And predictably, Amanda becomes increasingly disturbed.

There’s nothing truly scary or unpredictable about anything that’s presented in “Umma.” Yes, there are violent attack scenes and people screaming when things get out of control, but too much of it is shown in a very stale manner that’s been done many times already in better horror movies. And for a movie that takes place mostly on a beekeeping farm, there’s surprisingly very little use of the bees in the movie’s terror scenes.

“Umma” has a somewhat time-wasting subplot about Chris becoming friendly with Danny’s teenage niece River (played by Odeya Rush), who gives Chris confidence-boosting pep talks about how it’s okay to be a weirdo and a misfit. Unfortunately, everyone in the movie, except for complicated and confused Amanda, is written as bland, two-dimensional characters. The movie also badly mishandles mental health issues.

The technical aspects of “Umma” are competent, except for an almost laughable visual-effects scene involving a very fake-looking fox with multiple tails. This creature is supposed to be terrifying, but looks like it belongs in a kiddie cartoon, not a horror movie. And with the manifestation of Amanda’s mother, “Umma” tritely uses the Hahoetal death mask as a symbol for how people sometimes hide their true selves from the world, since it’s implied that Amanda’s mother was able to keep her child abuse crimes a secret.

“Umma” missed some big opportunities to have quality depictions of generational trauma. The movie also has a very limited view of Korean heritage, which is mostly used in “Umma” as a plot device to invoke fear in the characters. “Umma” is just a series of half-baked jump scares and underdeveloped characters, with a rushed ending that leaves some important questions unanswered and audiences feeling like “Umma” is a just another ripoff horror movie.

Stage 6 Films released “Umma” in U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Plus One’

May 5, 2019

by Carla Hay

Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid in "Plus One"
Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid in “Plus One” (Photo by Guy Godfree)

“Plus One”

Directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

Traditional romantic comedies whose two central characters are a man and a woman typically follow this formula: “Boy meets girl. Boy and girl hook up/fall in love. Boy loses girl because of an argument, misunderstanding and/or fear of commitment—take your pick. Boy and girl make up and reunite in the end.” The couple in the story either can’t stand each other when they first meet, or they’re longtime friends who discover they have romantic feelings for one another.

Taking all of these clichés into account, “Plus One” is as predictable as they come for romantic-comedy plots. However, the entertaining dialogue and winning performances of the movie’s cast make the film an enjoyable and breezy ride. It’s also rare to see an American rom-com with an interracial storyline between a white man and an Asian woman. Their racial differences are mentioned for a few jokes in the movie, but it’s not a source of tension in the story, since all the main characters in this movie are accepting of people from different cultures.

In “Plus One”—the first feature film from writers/directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer—Jack Quaid is Ben King and Maya Erskine is Alice Mori, two friends who have known each other since their college days. Ben and Alice are in an age range (late 20s to early 30s), when many of their peers are getting married, but Ben and Alice are still struggling with finding their life partner. Ben is fairly choosy about what he wants, and most of his relationships end because his partner has a flaw that he can no longer tolerate. Alice is less judgmental about the people she dates, but she might be a borderline alcoholic, and her raunchy, no-filter personality screams “hot mess,” thereby driving away a lot of potential partners. She’s also still hurting from a recent breakup from ex-boyfriend Nate (played by Tim Chiou), who dumped her.

So what are two lovelorn singles to do when they’re invited to several weddings in one summer? They agree to be each other’s date (or “plus one”) to all of the weddings. One of the weddings happens to be that of Ben’s twice-divorced father Chuck (played by Ed Begley Jr.), who’s marrying a woman young enough to be his daughter, much to Ben’s disapproval. To make things even more awkward for Ben, his father asks Ben to be his best man.

The weddings take place in different parts of the world, so it’s unclear how Ben and Alice (who are working professionals) have been able to take all that time off from work to globetrot to all of these weddings. But those are the kind of details that romantic comedies such as “Plus One” aren’t really concerned about explaining. The main concern that these kinds of movies have is to get audiences to root for what we all know is going to happen.

The movie opens with Ben rehearsing his speech as a groom’s best man, so that Alice can critique the speech. Awkward wedding speeches are used as comedic devices throughout the entire film. At this particular wedding, Alice does what she does at pretty much all of the weddings in this movie: She gets drunk.

Since Alice has decided she’s going to be Ben’s “wing woman,” she tries to play matchmaker for him at the wedding receptions. However, Alice’s idea of introducing Ben to a woman is to shove him hard enough to fall down near the woman.

Ben is literally the straight man to wacky Alice, who’s a foul-mouthed, crude partier with immaturity issues. But there are hints that she’s attracted to him. When they have to share a hotel bed, due to a series of events that force them to take the only hotel room available to them, she wants to cuddle with Ben and tickle-scratch him, but he refuses.

Perhaps stung by the rejection, sharp-tongued Alice tries to convince others (and maybe herself) that Ben isn’t a suitable love partner. Some of the zingers that she puts out there include, “Ben doesn’t date people. He dates ideas.” Later, she tells Ben, “Someone as grotesquely tall and skinny as you doesn’t have the right to be picky.” Even with the sarcastic put-downs, Alice shows a vulnerable side to Ben, when she confesses that her long-married parents are miserable together, thus revealing her own issues with commitment.

When Ben finally meets Alice parents, we see a familiar pattern: Alice’s mother Angela (played by Rosalind Chao) is the tactless motormouth who pries into other people’s love lives (just like Alice), while Alice’s father Mitch (played by Tom Yi) is the calmer, more polite partner (just like Ben). People who know the rom-com formula can figure out what happens with Ben and Alice. Are Ben and Alice the type of people you would want to be friends with in real life? Alice’s drunken antics and rants would be embarrassing to any sane adult, but spending less than two hours with her and Ben on screen is amusing enough for some laughs and some sighs of relief that most wedding guests never act like Alice.

RLJE Films will release “Plus One” in select U.S. theaters on June 14, 2019.

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