At the start of our conversation about the horror film Umma—the title is the Korean word for mother—writer-director Iris K. Shim is careful to note that she has a great relationship with her own mother.
“I feel like I have to preface this by saying I adore my mother. We have a very good relationship, so this is not necessarily inspired by the drama of my relationship with my mom. I think in a way I was playing with that a lot in the sense that we have this good relationship, but what if one day she turned into a monster and something unrecognizable.”
Shim’s film, which stars Sandra Oh, explores the theme that sooner or later we will probably become more like our parents. For most women that involves mixed emotions, given the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships. For the protagonist in Umma, the possibility of even remotely resembling her mother is terrifying, so she has to hide herself—and her daughter—away from any history that might evoke memories of her traumatic childhood. That history, however, finds her in the form of her mother’s ashes and that’s when her quiet life turns into a horror movie.
“The fun thing about using the horror genre to explore these themes is you can really start to push them into the extreme of that,” said Shim.
Amanda and her daughter, Chris, live on a remote farm without electricity. It seems idyllic. They tend bees, sell honey and are self-sufficient. But they are also co-dependent. That was fine when Chris was little, but as she approaches adulthood, she’s eager to explore the world. When umma’s ashes arrive from Korea, Amanda starts hearing her voice and acting out her rage. Amanda begins to unravel, endangering her relationship with Chris.
There’s a beautifully telling scene in the film where Chris is in the attic typing out an admissions form for college, while Amanda hammers a wooden beehive. Expanding the farm with more hives means she will need Chris to stay. Typing that form means Chris wants to leave. For each tick of the manual typewriter, Amanda hammers another nail in place.
“I was constantly thinking about this idea of mirroring in exploring the theme of daughters turning into mothers,” said Shim. “Chris is actually in the early stages of that process, even though she doesn’t really realize it. I always thought of this movie as being like a spiritual prequel to Grey Gardens in the sense that if Chris doesn’t leave now, she will never leave. It has to happen now. In a way, even though the arrival of umma causes so much chaos in their lives, it’s actually a thing they need, this extreme moment, to separate themselves.”
Amanda has neglected to tell Chris anything about her own family’s traditions, so Chris, played by Fivel Stewart, knows little about her heritage. Her curiosity mirrors Shim’s own experience in making the film. Although Shim grew up in a home rich in Korean iconography, she was focused on fitting in and never thought to ask her parents about what any of it meant. While researching the script, she learned more about some elements of her own upbringing. That included traditions, like the jesa ceremony honoring the anniversary of a family member’s death. Her newly acquired knowledge also included an introduction to mythological elements, such as the nine-tailed fox or gumiho, which she included in the film.
“I had no idea what it was,” said Shim. “Had never seen it before.” So, she called her family, including cousins in Korea, to ask if they knew about gumihos and they did, saying everyone in Korea knows about gumihos.
“Everyone in Korea knows about this, but even though I am Korean I had no idea,” said Shim. “That separation really stuck with me and I wanted to have that moment with Chris where she sees this thing that is connected to her, through her culture, but it still feels unfamiliar to her. At first she feels very frightened by these Korean elements because they are unfamiliar, but by the end of the movie she wants to embrace them.”
Majoring in psychology at college has proven to be a useful basis for Shim’s storytelling.
“It was a really great building block for me as a storyteller to think about character first and to really dig into not only what motivates people, but in the horror genre what scares me. The idea of questioning your own reality, questioning who you are, and potentially losing your mind is really frightening because that can really happen.”
Shim wrote the film with Sandra Oh in mind, never thinking she would agree, so working with her was a dream come true. They engaged in long conversations, not only about the story, but also their own experiences growing up Korean Canadian and Korean American.
“We talked about elements of our relationships with our moms and incorporated elements into the story,” said Shim. “There was so much discussion of the character’s story before we were actually filming. So, it was really such a wonderful process of doing a lot of that work early on.”
For Shim, it was a pleasure to create a film with complex Asian characters, something she did not see much of on screen when growing up. She wanted to make a film capable of inspiring her younger self to think, yes, you can do it, you can make films. Offering cinematic opportunities for diverse characters enriches Hollywood, as was the case with the Academy Award winning best picture Coda.
“What are all these different human experiences we can put on screen? Interestingly enough when I was watching Coda, part of the reason it moved me so much was because to me it felt like the immigrant experience. It was her relationship to her family, how much they depended on her, because they don’t have the same kind of language that everyone around them uses. I can definitely see myself in that kind of movie and the more we have of that, the wider breadth of human experience that we have access to, is really exciting.”
Umma is a psychological thriller about the multigenerational effects of trauma, in which a character needs to confront her past and recognize her complicated feelings toward the woman who nurtured and hurt her.
“I really felt like it’s about finding the things that you want to emulate and then working through and past the things that are toxic,” said Shim. “That’s the nature of all relationships. It is this complicated mess.”
Umma can be see in theaters and on demand on Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, VUDU and AMC.