It’s the child who has obligations to their parents. In life and forever afterwards.
The cold night air sets in across the Arizona desert, the breeze gently swaying the sparse foliage as the air curls around the isolated home, softly whispering, “Umma.” A presence is felt, something otherworldly and frigid, something caught between worlds, begging for release but still snarling with malfeasant intent. In Korea, they are known as Gwisin, the spirits of the recently departed who are still bound to our realm through unresolved business, tormenting those who wronged them in the world of the living. Malevolent and filled with regret and rage, tortured by the lives they lived waiting for things to resolve, never able to reconcile with the past. Upon the dusty farmland, a Gwisin glides, searching for her daughter. The sky cracks with electric fury, elucidating a lifetime of painful memories as the safety of home becomes infested with dread thought to be long escaped.
Amanda’s (Sandra Oh) past is foggy, intentionally obfuscated, deliberately murky to all in her surrounding. Though a notion rises to the surface of past trauma associated with her mother (or “umma” in Korean), her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) and only friend Danny (Dermot Mulroney) seem in the dark, unsure of what exactly was the catalyst for Amanda’s intense isolation and unwavering phobia of electricity. Chris trusts her mother implicitly, never yet curious to question the root of her issues or their distance from society. They live out in the middle of nowhere, tending to their land, taking careful care of their collection of beehives and selling the harvested honey. It seems simple, with a level of calm respect and understanding, despite how unconventional it all may appear. They successfully live off the land and off the grid, undisturbed except for the welcome routine visit from Danny, until Amanda’s uncle appears unannounced from Korea. He informs Amanda that her mother has died, and that her spirit resides in a nondescript green trunk, still tormented by her unresolved conflict with Amanda. As quickly and strangely as he seems to have manifested into the Arizona heat he leaves once again, leaving Amanda to wrestle with the trauma associated with her mother.
Slowly, the haunting creeps its way through the fabric of the walls, escaping the green trunk and the silky scarf tied around it. Amanda becomes plagued by the shattered relationship she once held with her mother, a corrosive entity that begins to eat at her relationship with Chris while she vows to never become the woman who treated her so poorly. Certainly, this contrived tale of generational trauma as crushing horror is nothing novel or unique, the sins of the past coming back and threatening a once idyllic life is a tale as old as time. It’s intriguing enough to be a film that stands in earnest with cultural specificity and inserts the fascinations of Korean folklore alongside the often stringently harsh expectations put upon children, how it all tumbles down and a cycle of bitterness does little else but carry on throughout history until someone is aware enough to break free of it all. Horror with specific intent and strongly rooted source material is exactly what we need so much more of, only it needs to be done with enough care to not just lazily include surface level concepts without the forethought to actually explore or use any of them to any real effect.
Umma, as it tries to crank up the tension and attempts to craft something full of fascination and terror, ends up just numbingly rote, a twisted story that’s really just presented in a certain way to obfuscate its ultimately flat and nondescript end result, generational trauma that starts and ends at those two words without ever really bothering to understand what that means, what it affects, and what it actually takes to reconcile with long burdening familial struggles. Instead, it’s all one note, one point of contention, one terribly forceful metaphor that intends to tie it all into a neat bow before cutting to black and hoping it all happened fast enough that you won’t think about it. It’s all Umma, all the haunting visage of Amanda’s mother, all problems ready to be absolved instantly as the ghost fades, suddenly ushering in a new age of peacefulness and healing. All told, the day or two of minor inconvenience and frustration at the hands of a malfeasant spirit seem fairly manageable.
Even if it were passable enough to be a palatable horror film, which its shockingly short runtime filled with pointless bloat nearly fails on its own, it is barely competently composed as a cinematic experience. The cinematography can’t quite land on any one consistent style, only managing to find intrigue in the single scene where it chooses to use some unique movements and Dutch angles, outside of that opting to be either miserably dark or horribly overexposed, a grating experience for the eyes no matter what is taking place. It’s a film with so much that gets so close, so much that seems to truly desire more, ever so close to a welcome and refreshing turn on what we’ve come to expect from contemporary horror, but it can’t ever quite hit that mark. There’s palpable effort in the performances, a dusty ambiance and an isolation that belies the haunting atmosphere, and most of all it’s built on the back of cultural folklore that provides all the necessary structure for what could be a perfect blend of twisted horror and an exploration of what it means to both a mother and a daughter. Tragically, it is none of those things, and the substance of this hollow endeavor will leave your mind as quickly as Amanda’s uncle completely evaporated from the film.