Iris Shim reared the familial Korean-English bilingual supernatural horror movie ‘Umma.’ While the film’s tenor may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it eschews generic jumpscares in favor of a nail-biting drama mingling realism and fantasy in a slow-burning potboiler. The horror lies in the transition from traditional Korean culture to American modernity. Memory plays a significant role in bringing out the macabre whispers of a repressed psyche in the open.
Past trauma leads to horrific manifestations as Amanda (Sandra Oh) is reconnected to her roots, and the overarching familial structure gives the narrative a sense of continuity. While set against a small town ambiance backdrop, the ambiguous horror thriller shines with intelligent visual effects and an empathetic take on its seemingly unreliable narrator. However, you may be surprised by the implications of the final scene. Let us intervene if you seek to follow the finale from closer quarters. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Umma Plot Synopsis
First-generation Korean immigrant Amanda handles a profitable bee-keeping business with her daughter Chris. While it was Chris’ idea initially, she has grown older, and her priorities have naturally readjusted by themselves. They seemingly live in another era, with no electricity and cellphone at their stride, since electricity causes Amanda a strong allergic reaction. Currently, shop owner Danny reaches out to Amanda to discuss expanding the business, and Amanda cannot possibly manage the business by herself.
Amanda is upset when she learns that Chris intends to apply for college at West Mesa University. Danny gave Chris the application, which was another shock for Amanda. While out cycling, Chris sees a man in a car speaking to her in Korean. She does not understand the language, which makes the person drive away. This person reaches Amanda’s home, calling her by her real name, Soo-Hyun. To Amanda’s dismay, this man is her uncle, Mr. Kang. He has traveled from South Korea to the US to reach the remains of Amanda’s mother to Amanda.
After reprimanding Amanda for not teaching Chris Korean, and fleeing from her family, the uncle storms out of the door. However, he leaves Amanda the trunk bearing her mother’s memory. Amanda keeps the meeting a secret from Chris, and neither does she speak about the chest contents. In Danny’s shop, Chris meets his niece, River. While Amanda is not ready to let go of Chris, she is haunted by the memory of her mother. Her hallucinations start getting out of control, while Chris calls her a psycho. The trunk, like Amanda’s unconscious mind, keeps the remains of the past hidden, while the ghost of Amanda’s mother seems to lurk in the house.
Umma Ending: Is Amanda Dead or Alive? Does She Make Amends With Her Mother’s Spirit?
As the drama ends, reality and fiction converge to create a dreamscape. At times, the spirit of Amanda’s mother possesses her, like in the instance towards the finale when Amanda is vicious to Chris. When Chris calls Amanda a “psycho,” Amanda reminds Chris how she always used to run home from every school she was ever admitted to and how Amanda homeschooled Chris as a result. The insult is heavy for a teenager, Chris, to bear, who is too eager to compare Amanda to her mother.
Fearing that she has become a shadow of her mother, Amanda buries her mother’s ashes without any ritual. Amanda has nothing but hatred for her mother, which is apparent from the burial scene. A red ribbon comes up from the grave (in tune with Amanda’s mother’s job as a dressmaker) and wraps around Amanda’s leg. She falls into the grave and confronts the spirit of her mother. At the point when Amanda enters the tomb, we fear that she may die, but Amanda’s mother loves her daughter more than anything in the world.
Therefore, in the afterlife, she is not a harmful spirit. As the final scene of Amanda meeting her mother unveils the true face behind the traditional mask (Tal), Umma becomes demystified. The spirit is vengeful towards Amanda since she left the family, seeking an accountancy degree and living an independent life. In the end, Amanda makes amends with her mother’s spirit. Despite the horrific side of her mother, Amanda pays her due respect to the memory of Umma before the grave. Looking at the final moments, it seems that Amanda is alive and letting go of the memory of her mother. In the process, she finds peace and becomes more mindful of her daughter’s wishes.
Why Can’t Amanda be Near Electricity?
In the early moments, we get to know that Amanda cannot be near electricity. In effect, she lives a “retro” life with her daughter, as River would call it. While the insertion makes Amanda’s character dynamic, it also gives the director leeway to use hurricane lamps and create the demure magic of the movie. However, realistically speaking, humans have been living in an electricity-laden world for a while now, and Amanda’s alleged condition sure makes one curious. However, we later learn that Amanda’s situation has nothing to do with her body – it’s more psychological than pathological.
After River uses her phone in Chris’ room, Chris learns that the condition is made up. She confronts Danny with the knowledge, who also has an idea about it. However, he kept it a secret since he thought Chris already knew about it. But at this point, we know that Danny is only evading the situation. Chris comes back and engages in a fight with Amanda. But we later learn the real reason behind Amanda’s fear of electricity. After arriving in the US, Amanda’s mother withdrew from social interactions, staying home most of the time.
Umma eventually turned into the vicious woman Amanda remembers. When Amanda wanted to leave the house in her childhood, her mother kept her locked inside a closet for long hours. She also forced Amanda to electrocute herself with a torn electric wire, and the account may trigger the survivors of childhood trauma. Amanda’s mother wanted Amanda to feel the same pain as herself, while Amanda could never forgive her mother for the cruelty. But in the end, Amanda moves on from her trauma as she pays respect to her mother’s grave.
Is The Ghost of Amanda’s Mother Real? What is Her Wish?
The brilliance of the storytelling never makes us take a side, while we have to employ a degree of disbelief as viewers. Amanda is haunted by her mother’s spirit after the arrival of the trunk, but in several of these cases, the ghost is revealed to be Chris. In one instance, Chris tries out a robe, while Amanda, seemingly delirious, mistakes Chris for her mother’s spirit. These early sequences suggest that the haunting predominantly occurs in Amanda’s mind. There is no ghost, only the past’s discontents rooted in the mind’s vagaries. While initially afraid and reluctant to return to the past, Amanda has to tell Chris everything about her mother when Chris insists.
Upon Chris’ insistence, Amanda bares open the trunk. She shows Chris the tal (a mask and a family heirloom passed on from her ancestors) and hanbok, a traditional Korean clothing Amanda’s mother used to make. As we never see the ghost outside Amanda’s first-person view, we conclude that Amanda is mentally ill. However, the final scene suggests that there may be a presence of a spirit. The final scene catches Amanda and Chris performing the jesa (Korean funeral rite) to appease the spirit of Amanda’s mother. As they leave the scene, someone is wearing the traditional dress, hanbok, into the frame. The suggestion is that the ghost is real, even out of the horrors of Amanda’s mind.
Does Chris Attend the College?
To ensure a happy ending, the screenwriters decided to send Chris to college in the end. Amanda overcomes her childhood trauma and lets go of Chris. While Chris looks forward to the new beginning of her life, Amanda has to take care of the farm by herself. However, there may be a little plot hole involved in the happy conjecture. If you remember, Chris’ first application is ruined, thanks to the menacing spirit of Amanda’s mother. Danny gave her the first application, but the film never shows Danny providing Chris with another application. River’s gift of the organizer may motivate Chris to attend college further, but the plot hole seems glaring. If you can overlook it, the finale remains positive and spirited.
Read More: Where Was Umma Filmed?