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In 'Umma,' intergenerational trauma takes on a demonic form

The protagonists of 'Umma,' a new horror film directed by Iris Shim, grapple with the hair-raising effects of integenerational trauma.
Saeed Adyani
Sony Pictures Entertainment
The protagonists of 'Umma,' a new horror film directed by Iris Shim, grapple with the hair-raising effects of integenerational trauma.

Editor's note: This story contains language that some people may find offensive.

Villains in horror films aren't usually moms and grandmas. But a new entrant in the genre, called Umma, shows how the traumas of motherhood can haunt, and even destroy, the deepest family bonds.

In the empty plains of middle America, Amanda, a Korean American beekeeper played by Emmy-nominated actress Sandra Oh, lives an isolated, off-the-grid life with her teenage daughter, Chris, played by Fivel Stewart (Atypical). Their world is a quiet one, punctuated by the buzz of bees; they use typewriters, candles and bicycles instead of computers, lightbulbs and cars. Chris' only friend is Amanda – and all they have is each other. But one day, when the ashes of Amanda's umma — "mother" in Korean — arrive in a box, the demons from Amanda's past awaken.

Three generations of women descend into conflict — and they're forced to confront the hair-raising effects of intergenerational trauma. The two stars, Oh and Stewart, spoke with to NPR's Weekend Edition about the horrors of "turning into one's mother," and how they tried to portray, and understand, their characters' trauma. Both actors say their Korean ancestry made the making of the film that much more personal.

Interview Highlights

On what drew the actors to a horror film about motherhood

Fivel Stewart: I'm a big horror buff and I love Sam Raimi [a producer on the film]. And I've always wanted to do a horror film, but really wanted to be specific about which one I did. And then I heard it was a Korean American horror film, and that really drew me in as well.

Sandra Oh: What was really interesting to me absolutely was like a horrific relationship between a mother and a daughter, because I think, ultimately, it's such an interesting, fraught relationship. But also the things and the themes that we kind of include in it is kind of intergenerational trauma and the trauma that happens after immigration.

Actress Fivel Stewart stars in the film as Chris, Amanda's teenage daughter.
Saeed Adyani / Sony Pictures Entertainment
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Actress Fivel Stewart stars in the film as Chris, Amanda's teenage daughter.

On how much of themselves they put into the film

Oh: I'd say like a huge amount, but it's very difficult to pinpoint direct lines, meaning, like you're in the space of metaphor, you're in the space of the genre, you're in the space of horror or psychological horror. ...

We called on a lot of ancestor guidance. We had a table that you would pass on your way to set, and we invited everyone on the crew to either bring in pictures or little symbols of your ancestors, or of your grandparents. And a lot of people did. ... It was just you were bringing up a lot of ghostly, powerful forces and energies that we're playing around with. I was absolutely bringing in my lineage to say, 'Will you please protect us as we're going into these other realms of what it is to not deal with our ancestors?' You know, like we want to be respectful to our ancestors by doing a psychological horror about them. So, please, please come in and guide us.

Stewart: It felt quite personal, especially just like the relationship with you, Sandra. The relationship between you and I just felt so intimate and so close, to where I was going to say it was like being with my mom, like being watched by my mom and being guided by my mom. So I think for that, it really set like internally, it was very close to my heart, so it wasn't too much to pull from.

Oh: It was [also] very powerful to have those [Korean] symbols on set. There's a lot of history that we carry – that Fivel and I probably carry in our DNA that we have no idea about. But I really, really do believe that those things are passed on. And so for us to be surrounded by symbols that maybe we're not so familiar with — maybe we are familiar with — and just to deal with that was, I felt, a powerful experience.

Stewart: I agree. I think it was also a really big learning experience for me too, just because I'm such a melting pot of cultures. To see a hanbok [traditional Korean attire] and to see all of these things come to life and put in front of me was really eye-opening. And now I want to continue learning more about it.

On the horror of "turning into one's mother"

Oh: I think there's no way that every single person hasn't thought that their mother wasn't a crazy psycho b****. It just is. I mean, these are very, very heightened circumstances because her mother is losing her mind. But I think that that's how everyone understands how difficult it is to try and make sense. You feel like your parents are crazy, you know? And from the parent point of view, it's definitely Amanda — she's caught in her own trauma. And what she can't see and differentiate is that Chris is her own human being. The way that she's not able to give that to her daughter is, again, generational trauma. She's not able to give that to her daughter until she herself confronts her own, the ghost of Umma. And only when she frees herself from it can she free her daughter from herself.

What does one do with the trauma? Hopefully, as parents, in any means, the best thing that we can do as parents is to deal with our own trauma, to not pass it on. Because if you don't, which is, you know, a bit about the movie — if you don't — it is going to sneak up and terrorize you, and then hence, you're going to terrorize the next generation.

Stewart: It was really interesting to play Chris because I really realized that I'm very similar to Chris in a lot of ways I didn't even think of. But I think the reflection of the mother and daughter relationship is really accurate to a lot of people. And so hopefully when they watch it, they'll kind of realize that maybe they are kind of repeating history, especially mom.

I mean, my parents do it like they always talk about how they were raised and how they don't want to provide me with that life. But when I am not with them and I think about it, I'm like, 'Oh, interesting. They're trying their hardest, but like inevitably they still are.' So then, it's just up to us to try to be better and try to balance that out. But Chris, I feel like, was a really well-represented younger woman with such a powerful mom, because you don't want to step on those eggshells. You don't want to cross that line because you love this person so much and they're your everything.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Candice Wang