Iris K Shim talks about her new film Umma, writing a story about Korean-American characters, and her journey into the film industry.
Supernatural horror Umma is director Iris K. Shim’s first foray into genre filmmaking, as well as being a story that is deeply personal to her. It’s been a while in the making, and she recalls a rocky start to the production. “We were one of the productions that got shut down by Covid, so it was a little bit of a wild roller coaster ride in terms of getting it made!” she says. The film endured a huge change to the location of filming, moving from Vancouver to Los Angeles, but Shim took it all in stride. “It was one of those things we decided to lean into and embrace. So it was a fun pivot to figure out ‘what are the things we can take from this new location that still tells the essence of the story'”.
Starring Sandra Oh and Fivel Stewart, Umma tells the story of a mother and daughter living a quiet life on an American farm. Their idyllic lives are turned upside down when Amanda (Oh) is informed of her estranged mother’s death and is given her ashes. Told that her mother (or umma in Korean) will grow more angry the longer she is kept boxed up, Amanda tries to ignore her remains and forget their troubled relationship. But the more she tries to forget, the more her mother makes her presence known. It’s a story about mothers and daughters, but also one that is centred on Korean-American characters and culture.
“It was very encouraging to see that people were not only open to this kind of story and these kinds of characters, that they were actually very hungry for it” Shim enthuses as she reflects on the process of getting the film into production. “We got interest from several different parties, and along the way we partnered with Sam Raimi which was incredible. We were able to cast my dream actress, the person who I wrote it for thinking I would never get her, but somehow we managed to get in touch with Sandra Oh and she responded very positively”.
Once those two big names were on board, the process became much easier.
Umma was brought to Raimi’s attention by a producer at Raimi Productions, Zainab Azizi, and Shim gives her a lot of credit for getting it made in the first place. “She’s a young woman of colour and when she read the script she really fell in love with it. She was a big champion of the film. She was really the one who got the ball rolling. I think it’s really a testament to not just the importance of the creative team and the creators for diverse content. The gatekeepers, the people in charge, they also have to be reflective of the population. The first step into getting this film made was with her support”.
As for why Shim decided to write and direct a horror film, she admits it was slightly strategic. “I thought writing a script where it was all small and contained, with very few characters, in a genre setting, would be a bit easier for me to actually get it made”, she says.
Her interest really lies in exploring the psychology of her characters – and the horror genre is definitely an effective way to do that. “I was always fascinated by what goes on in people’s minds, why they do the things that they do, and that there’s not always a clear answer. For me it was important to ground all the genre elements in a psychological way – what does this represent? What is the metaphor for this? What are we actually talking about? So that was the way I really found my way into the story”.
A lot of what Umma is really talking about is the complicated nature of mother/daughter relationships. Shim didn’t exactly set out to tell a story about parents, but found herself drawing from her own upbringing when writing the script. “I’ve recently come to this point in my life where my parents see me not just as their kid, but as an adult. I think they feel much more comfortable talking about certain things and being a bit more honest about how things were, and it just made me realise how much of a struggle it was for them. I really wanted to reflect that moment of being able to see your mother in a different light, to see her full humanity and all the flaws, what causes those flaws and those specific dynamics”.
Like Amanda’s daughter Chris (played by Fivel Stewart) Shim was raised in America in a Korean family, and there are aspects of Korean culture that were unfamiliar to her – she thought it was extremely important for this culture to be displayed in a mainstream American film. “This is not the kind of movie I had growing up, and anytime that I did see Asian faces it was in a very specific context. It was movies from those countries. Being able to see and experience characters with those elements woven into their life and their story was really important to me, just to try to provide something for a younger Korean-American girl that I didn’t have growing up. That really was the most gratifying part of this whole process, to embrace that and not feel like I have to hide it”.
Of course, the film is also about reconciling two different cultures.
“I made a specific choice when I was weaving the story that I wanted this visual of these East Asian faces against a very Americana backdrop,” Shim says of Umma‘s aesthetic. When production moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles, she found that the new, more desert-like setting still suited the Americana theme. “It kind of felt like we were making Breaking Bad for Korean-Americans, having that really intense, warm backdrop”.
A big part of choosing that setting was to defy stereotypes. “That visual was very important to me, to see that different context of when you get to see Asian-American characters. A lot of the time they’re in big cities because that’s where a lot of them live, and in certain professions. There’s just these tropes that we see really often and I wanted to break through and visually tell the story of these characters that felt a little bit out of place”.
Shim compares the journey of Chris trying to reconcile being American and Korean to her own experience. “Chris was raised with barely any exposure to anything, so her own Korean background is so unfamiliar to her. I really wanted to show that journey – when she first sees these things it feels foreign to her, and by the end of the movie she does come to accept them. That’s actually very reflective of my own experience. When I was younger I just wanted to fit in, I didn’t want to feel different. I really rejected a lot of elements of my own background, and I’ve finally got to the point of embracing and feeling proud of those elements”, she explains.
As for what drew her to film in the first place, it was just something she had a natural affinity for. “Anytime I saw anything on the screen I just gravitated towards the people and what their stories were. So finally, in college, I decided that I just had to try. If I decided that it’s not right for me or if I fail, at least I tried”. In the pursuit of her film career, Shim moved around a lot. After college she moved to Los Angeles to get an insight into the industry, and then moved back to Chicago, where she grew up, to make her first film. It was a short documentary named Of Kin And Kind, which told the story of a Korean-American family.
How did making Umma differ from her previous work on documentaries? “The fundamentals felt very similar, but the machine of it is so different. I made my documentary with three or four people and because we had no money I had to learn editing, I had to learn how to operate a camera, which is great. It was the best way for me to learn”. Following the film’s completion, she relocated again to New York, where she attended film school.
But when it comes to advice she would give to aspiring filmmakers, film school isn’t necessarily on the list. “I think really what I would say is be true to the kind of stories you want to tell, and try to come from an authentic, honest place. I think that’s something only each individual can do. No one can replicate anyone else’s experiences. Even a big, explosive action movie can come from an authentic place if there’s something meaningful that you’re trying to explore with it. Never forget that element of storytelling”.
Although authenticity is important to her as a filmmaker, at first Shim questioned whether she should write a story about Korean-American characters. “When I first decided to make a genre movie, write a genre script, I was actually very hesitant to write about Korean-American characters. I was a little bit nervous about writing this with this specific lens. I thought it might actually inhibit me from making the movie”.
She credits her partner, who is also a writer, for changing her mind. “He said ‘look, if there’s something you want to explore, don’t let it stop you. Don’t write the movie you think other people are going to want. You have to think about what it is you want to say, what interests you, what excites you, what scares you, and write from that place’. It was such great advice, and when I did it the story really fell into place”.
“It’s the fear that we all face of just putting yourself in such a vulnerable place where you’re exploring something deeply personal”, she says. Thankfully Shim allowed herself to be vulnerable and tell such a personal story, as that’s what makes Umma something special.
Umma will be released in cinemas on March 25th.
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