In ‘Umma’, intergenerational trauma takes on demonic form

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Editor’s Note: This story contains language that some people may find offensive.

Villains in horror movies aren’t usually mothers and grandmothers. But a new entrant to the genre, called Oumashows how the traumas of motherhood can haunt, even destroy, the deepest family bonds.

On the empty plains of Central 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 calm, punctuated by the buzzing of bees; they use typewriters, candles and bicycles instead of computers, light bulbs 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 are awakened.

Three generations of women fall into conflict – and they are forced to deal with the harrowing effects of intergenerational trauma. The two stars, Oh and Stewart, spoke to NPR weekend edition about the horrors of “turning into your mother” and how they tried to portray and understand the trauma of their characters. Both actors say their Korean ancestry made making the film much more personal.

Interview Highlights

On what drew actors to a horror movie about motherhood

Fivel Stewart: I’m a huge horror lover and I love Sam Raimi [a producer on the film]. And I always wanted to do a horror movie, but I really wanted to be specific about the one I did. And then I heard it was a Korean American horror movie, and that really appealed to me too.

Sandra Oh: What was really interesting to me was absolutely like a horrible relationship between a mother and a daughter, because I think at the end of the day, it’s such an interesting and strained relationship. But also the things and the themes that we include in it are a kind of intergenerational trauma and the trauma that happens after immigration.

About how much of themselves they put in the movie

Oh: I would say like a huge amount, but it’s very hard to spot any direct lines, that is, as you’re in the metaphor space, you’re in the genre space, you’re in the space of horror or psychological horror. …

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We used a lot of advice from ancestors. We had a table that you passed along the way to set up, and we invited everyone on the team to bring photos or small symbols of your ancestors or grandparents. And a lot of people did. … It was just that you brought up a lot of the ghostly, powerful forces and energies that we play with. I was absolutely bringing my lineage to say, ‘Will you please protect us as we go into these other realms of what it’s like not to deal with our ancestors?’ You know, how we want to be respectful to our ancestors by doing psychological horror about them. So please come in and guide us.

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

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

Stewart: I am okay. I think it was also a really great learning experience for me too, just because I’m such a melting pot of cultures. To see a hanbok [traditional Korean attire] and seeing all of these things come to life and show up in front of me has really opened my eyes. And now I want to keep learning more about it.

On the horror of “becoming his mother”

Oh: I think there’s no way every single person didn’t think their mother wasn’t a crazed psychopath. It’s just. I mean, these are very, very serious circumstances because his mother is losing her mind. But I think that’s how everyone understands how difficult it is to try to make sense of it. You feel like your parents are crazy, you know? And from the parents’ point of view, it’s definitely Amanda – she’s caught up in her own trauma. And what she can’t see and differentiate is that Chris is her own human being. How she’s not able to give that to her daughter is, again, generational trauma. She is unable to give this to her daughter until she faces her own, Umma’s ghost, herself. And only when she frees herself from it can she free her daughter from herself.

What about trauma? Hopefully as parents, by all means, the best thing we can do as parents is face our own trauma, not pass it on. Because if you don’t, which is, you know, kind of about the movie – if you don’t – it’s going to sneak in and terrorize you, and therefore, you’re going to terrorize the next generation.

Stewart: It was really interesting to play Chris because I really realized that I was a lot like Chris in many ways that I hadn’t even thought of. But I think the reflection of the mother-daughter relationship is really accurate for a lot of people. And so hopefully when they watch it, they kind of realize that maybe they’re repeating history, especially mom.

I mean, my parents act like they always talk about how they were raised and how they don’t want to give me this life. But when I’m not with them and thinking about it, I’m like, ‘Oh, interesting. They do their best, but inevitably they always do. So it’s just up to us to try to be better and try to balance that. But Chris, I feel like a very well-represented young woman with such a powerful mother, because you don’t want to step on those eggshells. You don’t want to cross that line because you love that person so much and they mean everything to you.

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