Umma Review: Sandra Oh’s Limp Ghost Story is an odd companion to Turning Red

Horror is part of Sam Raimi’s filmmaking DNA, whether he goes all out with slapstick gorefests like this evil Dead trilogy by adding a touch of monster movies to his Spider-Man movies or thrillers like steeped A simple plan or The gift with a more subdued form of creeping fear. So it’s only natural that he should spend some of his vast studio cash producing horror films – and it’s downright bewildering how few of them have been good. Crashing B movies like don’t breathe and Crawl are the exceptions. The disappointing preferences of 30 days night and bogeyman been the rule.

Raimi’s poor track record as a horror producer is not the fault of Iris K. Shim, the writer-director behind it ummah. But watching this decidedly unfrightening, poorly paced horror film produced by Raimi, it’s hard to avoid a pang of longing for the energy and aggression of films like Raimi’s drag me to hell, which he dubbed “Spook-a-Blast” in promotional interviews. The simplest definition of this term is a jazzed up funhouse horror film that ummah is not, apart from one drag me to hell-style shot where the heroine is, yes, abducted by a ghostly force. Unfortunately, this ferocity proves to be short-lived. During its slim but slow 83 minutes ummah piles up scenes of missed opportunities that cry out for a chilling sense of humor or an audience-shattering leap.

Instead Amanda (kill Eve co-star Sandra Oh) spends a lot of time moping. Amanda has escaped her dominance as a mother in Korea (the film’s title comes from “mother” in Korean) and moved to America, where she and her teenage daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) make honey on a remote small bee farm. Her only regular contact is a friendly local (Dermot Mulroney) who helps sell her honey online in exchange for bookkeeping work from Amanda. Why do they need to trade with anyone to sustain a humble ecommerce business? Because they live without electricity: no light, no mobile phones, no combustion engines. (Visitors must turn off their car engines upon entering the property.) Amanda claims that electricity makes her physically ill, a clear disguise of her troubled past.

That past doesn’t exactly creep back into Amanda’s life — she basically marches to her door and declares that she’ll be following her more directly going forward. At the beginning of the film, Amanda’s uncle shows up from Korea to bring her the cremated remains of her recently deceased mother. Shortly thereafter, Amanda begins to see the ghostly, angry figure of her troubled mother, just as Chris begins to resent her mother’s protective instincts. Like any sheltered film 17-year-old, Chris secretly explores her college options until her domineering parent finds out. Like any dominant parent in a movie, Amanda sees this development as a shocking betrayal. The conflict is so familiar and so caricatured that it’s hard to take seriously. (Wouldn’t it be more insidious if Amanda subtly undermined her daughter, at least initially?)

As Chris pulls away, Amanda becomes more and more anxious and nervous as she tries to tighten her grip. Tell me, could Amanda turn into her mother if she’s not careful? Amanda herself asks this question aloud several times when the conflict at hand was even remotely unclear. Some horror films rely on creating silent seething currents of uneasiness. ummah instead contains at least five scenes in which one character stands in front of another and provides a depiction of their past or current feelings. There’s no mystery, no imagery, no subtext, and between these somber confessions, the story manages to create a startling lack of momentum. It boils down to a list of things that were sufficiently frightening in other contexts: ghosts, masks, childhood trauma, and becoming the monster you once feared.

Photo: Saeed Adyani / Sony Pictures

The themes Shim seeks to explore have fueled many notable horror images, most recently including relic, To runand Hereditary. In comparison, ummah seems to work with security on, making the actors look uncomfortable but never really scared. As a horror lead, Oh is particularly static. Rather than venting frustration or fear, engaging with Amanda’s inner monster, or altering her performance in any way, she looks constantly dismayed, conveying all the soul-shattering horror of someone dreading a long bus ride. Stewart does slightly better, especially when she teams up with Odeya Rush as a more socialized girl her age. But the film doesn’t have much imagination when it comes to the effects of her character’s near-total isolation. Chris is pretty much just an even-tempered girl with no cellphone.

There is no sense of wildness to anyone or anything in it ummah, and it’s hard to make an effective film about losing control when the filmmakers seem reluctant to bother anyone. Even the few memorable images — a vision of Amanda’s mother shot through a beekeeper’s mask, or a Raimi-esque upside-down shot of a character exploding out of the earth in the moonlight — quickly dissipate as if embarrassing to suggest something funny. The most interesting thing about the film is pure coincidence: it arrives a week after Pixar’s Marvelous To redden, in which Oh also plays a mother who simultaneously smothers her child and lives in fear of her own mother. Any dominance of parents whose older children roll their eyes at the animation To redden with their families, it is advised to make them see ummah instead of this. It won’t scare them, but it may make them want to submit again.

ummah opens in theaters on March 18th.

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