This Women’s History Month, Sandra Oh transforms into not one but two supernatural creatures in an effort to humanize Asian moms on the silver screen, showing us there is room for nuance amid Hollywood’s growing interest in Asian American stories.
“Umma” is writer-director Iris Shim’s feature debut, starring Oh as Amanda, a beekeeper whose quaint American farm life with her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) is interrupted by the death of her mom (MeeWha Alana Lee), or umma. While grappling with both the loss of her estranged, abusive mother from South Korea and Chris’ growing interest in leaving home for college, Amanda becomes haunted by the fear that she herself is becoming her umma.
American Horror Stories
In the age of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) and Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” (2021), plenty of recent films have made notable use of the extremes of the horror genre to intimately explore very real fears of Black American experiences, intergenerational trauma and race. And if the legend of Candyman wasn’t enough to raise your heart rate at the buzzing of bees, Shim has found new ways to exploit the duplicitously sweet and painful insects to trigger an immigrant mother’s worst fears – getting stuck in a perpetual state of weirdness, dying abandoned and alone, failing as a mother, failing as a daughter.
“I definitely wanted to tap into my own experiences and my own feelings about growing up Asian American, but I didn’t necessarily want or feel like I needed to make a movie just about that,” says Shim. “And so being able to use genre to explore the themes of becoming your mother, which I think is such a very universal theme, whether or not you’re a woman – I think that just the idea of turning into your parents can terrify anyone. It was really a great way to emulate the terror that you feel on something that’s so human and so relatable.”
Cultural Elements and Erasure
As global K-zombie audiences and K-pop fanatics ride out the recent hallyu wave, “Umma” feels distinctly Korean American, managing to represent cultural elements in a way that is not inherently othering, while remaining accessible to second and third generations caught between worlds. The film’s sounds and visuals incorporate everything from more subtle references – including drums, an evolution of braided hairstyles and buns, a mother-of-pearl music box – to violently haunted hanboks and more explicit explanations of traditions like the jesa (for those of us several generations of American assimilation in who can’t “speak a lick of Korean.”)
For Shim, the supernatural iconography gave not only her characters but herself another chance to engage with both familiar and less familiar aspects of Korean heritage.
“In my house, my parents had a lot of this art and visuals of Korean culture, but you know I had so much of this… internalized shame of like, ‘Oh when I go outside I feel different, I wish I could just fit in more,’ that it wasn’t really something that I sought to learn more about or to embrace,” she says.
“As an adult I’ve come to really appreciate all the rich culture that we have. It was also, writing the script was a really, really fun and satisfying process in terms of like, I’d be calling my mom every day like, ‘What’s this? What’s the history of this?’…. I think she was very pleased that I was starting to ask those questions and have a genuine curiosity…. So that journey was something I definitely wanted these characters to have too, to be able to embrace it by the end.”
Stewart, who is half white, half Asian (her mother is of Korean, Japanese and Chinese descent) says the experience also made her feel much more connected to her “Asian side.” The 25-year-old actress also notes, however, that she could relate to her character’s struggle to feel seen while not cleanly fitting into a racial category.
“When people are like, ‘Oh do you speak any of your languages?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I don’t,’” she says, hanging her head. “It’s like immediate judgment! So for me to connect to Chris was super easy, because that’s also my life.”
“I know a lot of full Asian women look at me, and they’re just like, ‘Oh you’re a fake. You’re not really Asian.’ And it’s so disheartening,” Stewart continues. “I try to be very respectful, I take on this other part just so I can be seen by Asian people.”
The specificity and nuance of Amanda and Chris’ Korean-ness grant audiences the opportunity to see three generations of women beyond the tropes we have trapped them into. In a story that begins with Oh’s character having erased her Korean name, her first language and her story, those details attempt to make up for any shame our families have been made to feel, breathing new life into old traditions.
A Mother-Daughter Thing
Throughout Oh’s performance, she moves seamlessly yet unnervingly quickly between her roles as both daughter and mother, shedding light on the tensions that exist within and between both roles. As the child, both she and Chris are trapped between their guilt over abandoning their mothers and their need to break free to become their own persons. As the parent, it’s not always clear to Amanda or her umma whether a choice they’ve made is in the interest of their child or the product of their own fears and experiences. While our fears of being a bad child inform who we become as parents, our fears of being a bad parent bring out who we were as children.
At various points, both Amanda and Chris voice the most heart-wrenching yet alleviating perspective we gain as our parents become people in our eyes – “I wish I had known what you went through.” What it was like for you to be a stranger, alone in a strange land. What scars you inherited from someone else’s pain.
“Working on this project really was a reminder of how much my understanding and appreciation for my parents has evolved over the years,” Shim shares. “As a kid, I didn’t really quite understand… how much sacrifice they actually made for me and my brother and for us to have a good life, and so it really was a twisted love letter to my parents in terms of like, I don’t understand them completely yet, but I want to keep learning more about them, and now that they see me as an adult and not just their kid, I think they’re a little more open-minded in terms of being honest, and so I’m really enjoying that discovery process of seeing who my parents are and were before me.”
A New Generation of Healing
As audiences applaud this newfound appreciation for diverse, mainstream representation, Shim reminds us that while there is a willingness to fund these stories now, it remains up to future generations to ensure they continue to be seen. Not just through the preservation of tradition but through updates to them – a jesa ritual with “pizza and barbecue” perhaps, suggests Shim.
When asked how she thought Chris would go on to do as a mother, Stewart explained, “Clearly she loves her Korean side…. At the end you see her really develop a relationship with her Korean side, and so does Amanda.”
“Every generation is similar to their previous generation but maybe just a little better [at] just understanding and more balance.”
Often, the ultimate dream for our children is to give them the chance to develop dreams that go beyond anything we could envision for them. A sentiment that is no more perfectly represented than by Shim’s parents who, although they didn’t understand what she was doing when she decided to pursue film, she says, showed up to help her find an apartment in Los Angeles.
Several years later, one of Shim’s biggest supporters – her own umma – shared the trailer for her daughter’s upcoming feature film “Umma” in a family group, urging everyone to “smash that like button.”
Featured Image and Video Assets via Sony