According to mythology and folktales, malevolent spirits need a vessel to thrive. These vessels, or human beings, are often filled with negative virtues and have unfulfilled desires that attract these evil spirits who prey upon their greed, pain, and trauma and consume their bodies and minds completely to fulfill their ulterior motives. Iris K. Shim’s film, “Umma,” tries to portray one such encounter where an evil spirit, in the form of Amanda’s mother, starts haunting Amanda to force her to give her tormented soul a traditional burial, so that her soul can finally rest in peace. However, Amanda, who doesn’t believe in traditional beliefs and customs, ignores these warnings and runs away from them instead of facing them.
For most parts, Iris K. Shim’s film is a character’s journey where the protagonist struggles not to end up like her mother and, after a moving encounter, decides to face her fears instead of running away from them. The thin narrative tries to bring in elements from folklore and other related themes to captivate the viewer’s attention, but at the end of affairs, the film fails to leave a lasting impact. Let’s dig deeper.
‘Umma’ Plot Summary
A dark prologue sequence establishes that a young Soo-Hyun is tortured by her mother after Soo-Hyun tries to run away from her. She calls her Umma, which means mother in the Korean language.
Some sixteen years later, Soo-Hyun (Sandra Oh), now called Amanda Oh, lives an isolated life on a rural farm in America with her teenage daughter, Chrissy “Chris.” It is suggested that Soo-Hyun was finally able to run away from the clutches of her abusive mother and changed her name so that she wouldn’t be able to find her again. However, the identity of Chris’s father or how Soo-Hyun came to this rural farm isn’t revealed in the film.
Amanda may have adopted a new lifestyle with a new identity, but her childhood fears and trauma still haunt her. She gets paranoid near electric devices or electricity because her mother used to electrocute her with a broken wire of a night lamb to punish her. Amanda has convinced Chrissy that she is allergic to electricity, and thus there are hardly any electronic devices on the farm. The mother-daughter spent most of their days practicing beekeeping, which Amanda started after Chrissy showed interest in raising bees.
Amanda sells jars of honey to a local shopkeeper, Danny, who runs a general store, Cooper & Sons, a few miles away from Amanda’s house. He also delivers groceries and other important items to Amanda’s farm, and in exchange, Amanda helps Danny with bookkeeping. Danny understands Amanda’s fears and thus never tries to interfere in her personal lifestyle, but he wants Chrissy to leave the farm and get enrolled in a college to see the outside world and have new experiences.
Chrissy was bullied in school because of her nationality, after which Amanda decided to homeschool her. She has no friends or relatives, and for the time being, she finds her existence on the farm, but as she grows up, the same farm seems to suffocate her, and she wants to move out. Danny gets a West Mesa University form for Chrissy after she asks him for it. She decides to fill out the form and wants to inform her mother about her decision, but soon their honey business booms after a social media influencer posts about it on her platform. In order to increase the number of bee colonies, Amanda decides to send Chrissy to Danny’s shop, while in her absence, Amanda’s uncle Kang pays her a visit and informs her about her mother’s death.
Kang reveals to Amanda that her mother died of a heart attack while calling out Amanda’s Korean name, Soo-Hyun, during her last moments. She really wanted to see her, but there was no way of reaching out to Soo-Hyun after she changed her name and address. Kang believes that it was Amanda’s duty to look after her mother, but she failed her, because of which her mother’s spirit will forever be trapped in the human world like a Gwisin or a ghost. Kang leaves behind a small box with Umma’s ashes and her most cherished possessions, and before leaving, he warns Amanda that her mother’s anger will grow as long as she stays in the box, thus hinting at a proper burial.
On the handle of the box, Amanda finds a red piece of cloth with “Kumiho,” or the nine-tailed fox, printed on it, and inside the box, she finds a mask and her mother’s Hanbok, along with a miniature music box and her mother’s ashes. As soon as Amanda opens the box, she starts to experience an ominous spirit around her and thus decides to lock the box in her locked basement. Here too, Amanda’s defensive stance influences her to run away from her problems instead of facing them. She decides not to give a traditional burial to her mother. Her fears feed the evil spirit around her, and soon her mother’s spirit starts haunting Amanda and Chrissy as they finally deal with it and give it an appropriate closure.
Why Did Amanda Run Away From Her Mother’s House? What Was The Significance Of Kumiho?
Soo-Hyun’s mother was a respected dressmaker in Korea, but after her marriage, she gave up her dreams and came to America, following her husband’s wishes. She couldn’t speak the language of the foreign lands, and felt alienated and slowly lost her existence.
Soo-Hyun told Chrissy that when her mother came to America, she struggled with her life and stopped leaving the house. She isolated herself from everyone, and her demeanor changed. In her childhood, Soo-Hyun heard her mother screaming. After her father, fed up with her mother’s mental dilemma, left the house, her mother unleashed her bitterness on her daughter and tortured her. She was afraid of the horrifying loneliness in a foreign land and thus wanted Soo-Hyun to stay with her forever. To fulfill her motives, her mother resorted to physical abuse and tortured Soo-Hyun with broken electric wires, and often locked her in the closet whenever she tried to run away or disobeyed her wishes.
It can also be surmised that after Soo-Hyun ran away from her mother, she resorted to black magic. While there was no direct connection between Umma and Kumiho, Chrissy saw a Kumiho in the garden preying upon the chickens on the full moon night, the occasion on which these malevolent spirits generally appear. Even the cloth on Umma’s box was printed with a Kumiho figure, and hence it could be surmised that Umma made a deal with the devil to find Soo-Hyun after she left her.
After her death, Umma’s spirit became a Gwisin, and all she wanted was for her eldest descendant, Soo-Hyun, to perform a Jesa for her. According to Soo-Hyun, some Koreans believe that life’s hardships are caused by the tormented spirits of their ancestors, and thus, to appease their tortured souls, they have to make offerings. Soo-Hyun left behind her most cherished possessions so that Soo-Hyun would perform a Jesa and give relief to her tormented soul, but Soo-Hyun refused to do so. Instead, she threw the box in her basement and later tried to bury her mother’s belongings in a pit. Her stance enraged her mother’s spirit further, who tried to possess Soo-Hyun’s body and physically torture her daughter, Chrissy, who, like young Soo-Hyun, wanted to leave her mother and go to university. It was the reason why Soo-Hyun often told Chrissy that she would never become like her mother, and when her mother’s spirit possessed her, she kept on struggling until she finally faced her mother in her consciousness and decided to end the struggle for once and for all.
‘Umma’ Ending Explained: Did Umma’s Spirit Really Leave After A Jesa?
Soo-Hyun’s mother wanted her daughter to feel the same pain that she had been holding inside her for so many years, which is why she tortured her physically. But in the final encounter, Soo-Hyun revealed to her mother that she does understand all the pain she went through after coming to America and losing her existence, but abusing her own daughter to make her realize it was not correct either. It was the first time Soo-Hyun faced her mother boldly instead of running away from her, and probably her courage weakened the evil spirit. She crawled back to the surface and, the very next day, decided to give a proper burial to her mother and perform a Jesa for her.
Both Amanda and Chrissy, wearing Hanbok, paid their tributes to the tormented soul of their ancestor. At the ceremony, Chrissy’s phone chimed, but Amanda wasn’t afraid of it anymore, which meant that she had finally conquered her fears. However, in any kind of religious ceremony, any hindrance is considered a bad omen, and this could be the reason why her mother’s spirit didn’t find the peace that she was yearning for.
In the last sequence, as Chrissy left for her college with Danny in his truck, leaving behind Amanda all alone in the house, a shot depicted a part of Umma’s Hanbok filling the left portion of the screen while standing near her grave. This means her mother’s spirit may strike again and haunt Amanda until she does a perfect Jesa for her so that her soul can rest.
“Umma” is a 2022 Drama Horror Film written and directed by Iris K. Shim.