The first time I heard a coyote howl was on a farm in San Diego County. I can’t remember if it was my aunt’s or my grandmother’s farm, but watching “Umma” (엄마) reminded me of these two women in my family and the common sense of country women. “Umma” which means “mother” in Korean, is a mild scare film featuring good performances yet is based in an idyllic romanticized version of farm life the focuses and the complications of mother-daughter relations.
In a cold black and white flashback sequence, we see the past the and present, a mix of images from South Korea: women in hanboks, ceramics, a mask and a fox. In East Asian folklore, foxes are animals of transformation. They often appear as beautiful women. The nine-tailed fox, Kumigo (구미호 or 九尾狐), can be sinister. And the voices we hear are disturbing. In Korean, a girl begs her mother’s forgiveness but the mother is less forgiving. The mother is determined that her daughter will not run away again. Electrical torture as punishment is suggested. The young girl cries, “I will never run away again.” She adds, “I love you.”
Sixteen years later, as an adult, Amanda (Sandra Oh), lives off the grid. She doesn’t use electricity: she told people she has a bad physical (as opposed to psychological) reaction. She has a teenaged daughter, Chris (Fivel Stewart), who has been homeschooled. There only friend is the man Danny (Dermot Mulroney) who runs the local general store and delivers supplies and helps sell the honey they process. A social media influencer has sampled it and the honey is in high demand, but Amanda and Chris know little about the Internet, smartphones and social media. Their life is gas lamps and bicycles, board games and conversations. They have an orchard to provide pollen for their bees and they also have chickens for eggs.
Their peaceful existence, detached from the outside community and world, changes when the brother of Amanda’s mother (Tom Yi) arrives with an old-fashioned two-toned green leather suitcase filled with the remains of Amanda’s mother. He calls Amanda by her Korean name and lays on the guilt. The mother died of a heart attack, but he adds, “I know it was your fault that she died.” The mother’s ghost (MeeWha Alana Lee) attempts to teach Amanda how to be a better mother, revealing that Chris has plans to leave. There’s an application to the West Mesa University. Does any mother really want her kids to leave? The grandmother reminds Amanda they were once one and they could be one again.
Danny’s niece, River (Odeya Rush), is visiting, and shows Chris the world of smartphones and hints that Amanda’s aversion to electricity isn’t medical. She also asks Chris: “Don’t you want to know what it’s like, what you’re like somewhere else?”
At first, Amanda seems unhinged and one wonders if her mother’s death has triggered psychological problems, increased by the threat of Chris leaving home. This haunting could have been better and taken advantage of the setting. The weeding, the watering and the pruning of an orchard along with beehive maintenance seems like a task that would take more than two women.
Of course, living so far from any neighbor, from police, hospitals and phones will seem frightening to those of us who live in cities and are connected to our smartphones and the tidal rhythms of constant news, social media and viral videos. Some of those fears are well-founded. It’s hard for me to imagine a woman living off-the-grid without the oldest search engine and security device: A large, aggressive dog. The desert is more alive than one likes to think, even the desert has vermin in the form of rats, mice and gophers. Most The coyotes remain–elusive and ready for a chicken dinner, feathers, bones and all.
This is writer/director Iris K. Shim’s first feature fictional film as both writer and director. She previously directed the documentary about Andrew Suh (“House of Suh” about a 19-year-old who was convicted of murdering his sister’s boyfriend). “Umma” is a promising start.
Aside from my country folksy criticism, I was viscerally moved, but that might be because I have my own Korean American haunting story soon to be revealed on TikTok. For that reason, “Umma” is best recommended for the performances of Oh and Stewart, playing strong, intelligent women who are faced with a problem and find a way of uniting to deal with it. “Umma” is a promising start for a first-time feature length director and writer and it brings diversity to the horror genre. “Umma” is in Korean and English, with English subtitles.