starring Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart, MeeWha Alana Lee, Dermot Mulroney
written and directed by Iris K. Shim
by Walter Chaw Sandra Oh is very good as a woman working through the generational trauma shared by many first-gen Asian immigrants to the United States. She's exceptional occupying a range of complex, polarized emotions, managing in many instances to pull off scenes headed towards histrionics with exactly the right amount of reserve to keep it south of camp. Consider when her amateur apiarist Amanda learns of her mother's death from a long-estranged uncle (Tom Yi), who appears on her doorstep unannounced. He disapproves of how Amanda's daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart), born and raised in the United States, doesn't speak a word of Korean, and he blames Amanda for causing her mother's passing by the fact of her absence sitting vigil at her deathbed. He gives Amanda a bundle comprising her mother's favourite things along with her ashes, telling her to provide her a proper burial, lest Amanda herself become as vicious and intolerable as her Umma (MeeWha Alana Lee). Oh keeps her emotions steady. She holds on to them like a drowning sailor. You can see the turmoil in her face, though it's carefully held, and when she tells him to leave, she does it without turning the table over. That's powerful stuff. There's an entire film here, a good one, that never goes to a supernatural place with Amanda's baggage--one that recognizes how strong Oh's internalization of this role is and lets her do it without things jumping out at her from the basement. The parts of Umma that explicitly fail are the horror-movie parts. It's not simply that they don't work, it's that making an Asian mother the literal monster in an American horror movie is absolutely fraught with representational landmines writer-director Iris K. Shim doesn't quite know how to avoid. Had a white creator made either this or the recent Turning Red, there'd be an uproar. A justified one.