Stage & Screen

'Call your mothers!': Iris K. Shim Talks All About Her Feature Film Debut 'Umma'

&ASIAN sits down with writer-director Iris K. Shim ahead of her Sandra Oh and Sam Raimi produced psychological thriller Umma.
Sandra Oh as Amanda in 'Umma'. Photo: Sony Pictures.
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'Call your mothers!': Iris K. Shim Talks All About Her Feature Film Debut 'Umma'
This interview contains minor spoilers.

Thank you so much for making this movie! It was honestly so much fun to watch! Just to kick off, what was the development process for the movie like and why did you choose the mother-daughter relationship as the film's subject matter?

When I set out to make a contained genre movie, it was something that I thought that I would be able to set up to direct for my first narrative feature. So it took a little bit to find my way into the story by finally deciding to write it through the perspective of two Korean-American characters. As soon as I sort of made that decision, the story really just clicked in in terms of taking inspiration from my own life, from my own childhood, in terms of struggling with the question of identity and my place in this world, and me as an Asian person, and also an American: what does that all mean?

So a lot was sort of driving from that. But then as soon as I started really digging into these mother-daughter characters that became so present in terms of the story, that really became the sort of the primary focus, exploring these mother-daughter relationships. I think, despite [looking at] this specific lens of these of Korean-American mothers, the theme of motherhood is so, so universally potent that I do think that this is pretty relatable to everyone.

I really love how you address womanhood in general: from your choice to make Amanda a single mother... and I really love how she shuts down her uncle, when he asks about it! But then even with the younger generation of characters - Chris and River - their names are very unisex, suggesting that they have the licence to grow and develop and choose whoever they want to be.

When it came to exploring all those different female relationships, what work did you do with the actors to develop that?

It's funny that you that you mentioned Chris, because that that really was sort of the thought process when I was figuring out these names... because I do feel like, I think especially in the horror genre, I didn't want to lean into sort of the type of female characters that you might often see. That it's okay to not be feminine, as as a woman. Also, just being having these female characters really just live without the context of men.

So that was a lot of fun to play with, and especially just even working with sort of Dermot (Mulroney)'s character, Danny, that he is this male figure in their lives, he helps them and he supports them, but he's not, you know overt. He's not overpowering, or trying to really insert himself. So he's really sort of like taking a step back and letting these female characters just figure out their own issues and sort of, giving them the space to resolve things on their own.

So yeah, I was very mindful in terms of empowering these female characters to not only take charge of their own lives and their decisions, but to also not be to be perfect. To let them be flawed, and to let them be complicated. Because that's what women are, you know?

Amanda and Chris' (Fivel Stewart) home in Umma. Photo: Sony Pictures

I found it really interesting as well that you didn't ever, you didn't touch on the idea that Amanda might get therapy or mental health support too much on purpose. To me, it felt like a reflection of how still within Asian communities mental health support still isn't really talked about.

Absolutely. I think there is, sadly, a sort of rejection of the idea and acknowledgement of mental health in Asian communities. So that was something I thought about a lot in terms of "How do we talk about mental illness without actually, you know, saying those words?" How do we explore what Amanda is going through in terms of that mental health lens?

Even for Danny to... at one point he doesn't acknowledge that. [He says] "I tried to get her to go see someone, and she just really rejected that idea." For Chris, what she can offer her mother is to just say, like "I know what you went through is significant and it should be, you know, it should be talked about." So yeah, it was a little bit of that. What happens when we don't address the mental illness?

I do think also that's kind of why ghosts are so prevalent in Asian folklore, you know, that because there's so much the idea of things being so repressed and things being so unresolved, and to die without being able to resolve any of those feelings. It's no wonder that the idea of unresolved ghosts are present in Asian cultures.

I loved how you pick the colour purple for the hanbok (traditional Korean dress) that Amanda's mother made. Of course, there are all those connotations with the colour purple and wealth; but how in Korean culture, the colour purple is also connected to spiritual, emotional and mental well-being.

How much did those cultural beliefs come into the colours you picked? Especially in contrast to the more earthy colour palette of the American characters.

I was thinking a lot about the colour scheme of the hanbok because there's so much variety in what they look like, and the fun part about seeing the different hanboks were, "What is this feeling that we're trying to get?" I really wanted to reflect how this hanbok is sort of a reflection of Umma's character where, with purple, it can both feel bright, and it could also feel dark at the same time.

There is this sort of duality in Umm, and actually, all of the characters in [the movie] so I really wanted to pick sort of this hue that could look different in the daytime, and then also different in the nighttime, but also something that feels kind of vibrant too with the colour purple... there's just something very kind of, almost majestic about it. I really wanted to give Umma a sense of dignity by the end. So with the colour purple, I felt like there was s something very kind dignified about that colour.

Amanda (Sandra Oh) in Umma. Photo: Sony Pictures.

If there's one message you'd like audiences to take from the movie, what would you want it to be?

Call your mother, I guess! But, I mean, really, I feel the message would be... when you see your parents, try to, look past who they are in your world, and that person in some [ways] can be very surprising. I think that can can make for a very sort of fulfilling relationship, to be able to see who your parents are, other than your own parents: who they are as people.

Umma is out today.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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