Monday With Mildred: “Umma”

Umma movie poster


I had barely heard of this film before putting it on my queue, and may not have gotten it without a recommendation. Behold the power of reviews and word of mouth. Because this movie is a quiet gem and really good for the fall scary season. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Korean word for mother is Umma. 

The opening credits move along quickly so you have to pay attention because they definitely tell a lot of story visually. Under an Asian drum score, old Korea is depicted with videos and pictures, then a passenger plane takes off. The music changes when the images reach U.S. farmland and superimposed honeybees bumble around the screen. The montage tells quite a bit of story, especially quick interjections of Umma’s voice, and a screaming child as electricity sparks from a wire. The viewer immediately knows a lot about Amanda, which gives us a deeper understanding of why she does everything. 

The first moment of the film is a classic jump scare of a classic horror visual trope, the ole hand on the door knob. Amanda lives in the gigantic Kansas farmhouse and is famously off grid. She hunts down a turned on lamp, smashes it and kicks the shards under a table. People who know her heed the sign at the gate and stop there, take off their watch, turn off their cell phone and leave it in the car. When a car rolls right past the sign and parks in front of the house despite her yelling at the driver, it’s a little shocking already because we know why she’s so upset. A man gets out, checks his watch and stuffs his cell into a suit pocket. She recognizes him. It’s her mom’s brother, and he has brought Umma’s ashes. A quick and vicious guilt trip later and he leaves behind the ashes with a warning: give her a proper burial or she will cruelly haunt you. She throws the suitcase in the basement. 

As with the opening credits, a viewer has to pay attention to the movie or miss important details.  Electricity in the sky (lightning) is a bad portent, as is her dislike of bees because they buzz, like electricity. The viewer is given plenty of time to keep up, but it never feels too slow. The creep factor ramps up, and the wonderful close relationship of the mom and daughter becomes more strained.  

The screenplay is taut. There is a lot of showing not telling, the actors all do a great job, and the director makes some excellent cinematography and image choices, like the bees over the opening montage, because bees buzz like electricity and the mom is a beekeeper. A subtle axis tilt of the camera as Umma is delivered shows her world turning. It seemed like all the creepy moments were created practically, not with cgi, which grounds the action and makes everything more personal. Something I really appreciated was being able to see what was happening even in the dark scenes.  

It’s a small cast to tell the actually simple story. Sandra Oh (Gray’s Anatomy) is Amanda the electrophobic mom with a horrible secret past. Her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart, Atypical and several stunt credits) quickly befriends River (Odeya Rush, Lady Bird), the voice of the mysterious outside world beyond the quiet and powerless farmhouse. Robin’s uncle Danny (Dermot Mulroney, American Horror Story) is Amanda’s only friend and the voice of reason.  

From beginning to the very end, Umma is a solid movie on all fronts. It’s a rare film about a very strong woman and love conquering despair. The end of the film has an interesting visual that can be interpreted in a few ways. I’m going with the happy one because I’m tired of the endless “new and fresh” darkness from the Hollywood bright boys.  


CFR: In Addition: I love this movie. It was wonderful, under your skin horror. And hey, if Sandra Oh is showing her awesome acting chops and kicking charisma, then I am so there. Watch it.

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