Exclusive: UMMA Interview With Director Iris K. Shim

Exploring the paradox of feeling detached despite being in the same community.

By Nguyen Le · @nle318 · March 22, 2022, 7:26 PM EDT
UMMA (2022)

For many, particularly members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community, Umma's presence was first felt in 2019 through a casting notice. Although the project's title refers to "mother" in Korean (as a term-of-endearment, less formal "mom" level), the search was for a ddal (daughter) named Chris, a teenager with a Korean American background. When genre casting director Nancy Nayor and the film's skipper, Iris K. Shim found Fivel Stewart, that was it for a process described as expansive and extended.

"For Chris' character, it was this reflection of a very Americanized experience of being Asian, a visual of the biracial identity and what does that mean, almost a physical representation of what children of immigrants go through where you feel like you're in one role or the other—and not both," Shim said.

Stewart was cast after she displayed natural chemistry with lead actress Sandra Oh during a read, and both also spent time together afterward to build extra rapport that would translate when on set.


This anecdote reveals something interesting about Umma: looking for Chris was much more challenging than looking for parties to greenlight the project. Shim, who scripted and directed the film, credited producer Zainab Azizi for authoring this tailwind effect, bringing the idea to Sam Raimi's reach after positively responding to it ("I was fully prepared to spend years trying to set this project up," she added). Once Azizi and the Evil Dead filmmaker were on board, Oh was approached next and said yes.


In Umma, the sweet honey-making lives of beekeepers Amanda (Oh) and her daughter Chris (Stewart) turn sour when a relative (Tom Yi) arrives from Korea to deliver the ashes of the former's cruel mother (MeeWha Alana Lee). What's worse, this relative, Amanda's Uncle, advises her that mom must be properly laid to rest; otherwise, she will roam the grounds as an angry gwisin—or ghost in a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing). If these warnings were heeded, or had bygones been bygones, there wouldn't be a film to see.

As glimpsed in the trailer, the pivotal and dramatic moment when Amanda has to listen to Uncle about proper next steps unfolds in Korean with English subtitles. Both actors trade dialogue in their forebears' tongue. Shim recalls experiencing no pushback on this creative decision, one she says is important to convey the gaps between people who are meant to be close, the paradox of feeling detached despite being in the same community.


"Language is such an important part of your identity, it does say so much about the person speaking it and in what context," she added, just before citing identity as one of the film's main things to discover.


Speaking of discovery, Umma is Shim's first rodeo when it comes to directing a feature, after some time working on documentaries and shorts. According to her, the fundamentals of storytelling are similar, but in the feature-length realm the show to run is much bigger. Because of that, elements she could once directly control are in others' hands. For example, for The House of Suh, which won awards at many festivals (and is available on Prime), Shim was credited as its director, co-producer, and editor.


But the more important discovery? Shim's very own Korean roots. Making Umma, she says, has given her chances to ask her parents about the elements surrounding it and then accepting the answers—or being aware of them at the very least. The research, in turn, lets her continue to climb over an "internalized shame" and stay curious, driving out the judgmental and fearful persona her younger form once hosted to avoid the "outsider" label.

"I can understand the pressure that my parents might have gone through, that they were trying to put pressure on me for my own survival," she said. "I was able to see my parents in a different light."

Now that sure is a prompt to hug your omoni and abuji (mother and father). Who says sweetness can't come from horror, right?

Umma is now playing in theaters.