Korea (2003) Dir. Park Ki-hyung
Children are funny creatures. I know that is a general admission but one thing some of them tend to do, largely because of their callow grip on emotions, is become jealous of other children in the family arriving after them, stealing the attention from their parents that was once exclusively theirs. And that could turn nasty…
Artist Choi Min-Sook (Shim Hye-Jin) and obstetrician husband Kim Do-Il (Kim Jin-Geun) have failed to have children over many years, finally deciding to adopt instead. At an orphanage they choose six year-old Jin-sung (Moon Woo-Bin), a quiet boy with a passion for drawing. Things seem to be fine at first except Jin-Sung develops an odd affinity with acacia tree in the back garden which he believes is his real mother.
To everyone’s surprise, Min-Sook falls pregnant and gives birth to a boy, Hae-sung, but instead of welcoming his baby brother into the world, Jin-Sung is bitter after overhearing his grandmother suggest they send him back to the orphanage. Jin-Sung’s behaviour gets even more hostile after befriending eight year-old neighbour Min-Ji (Jung Na-Yoon). Then Jin-sung goes missing and strange things start to happen around the house.
Park Ki-hyung doesn’t have many film credits to his name although his debut should be familiar to fans of K-horror as he helmed the seminal Whispering Corridors. This might be enough of a reason to check out Acacia but in the five years between these two films, it seems Park has lost a bit of his touch. Then again, can anyone successfully make a scary film about a tree with implied supernatural powers?
Yet, the story, co-written by Park and Seong Gi-young, shouldn’t be about the tree at all when the issue of jealous step-siblings is a fertile one that inadvertently lends itself to the horror genre. It might not lead to the most sensitive of explorations but sometimes even horror can deliver effective enough warning for us to heed, which is why there is so much about this film which is disjointed as a result.
In many instances the tree is something of a McGuffin though it is, as the slogan on the DVD artwork asserts, the “root of all evil” in quite a literal sense – if only there was an explanation as to why. We get some mumblings regarding an old legend of acacia trees being able to command ants or something, otherwise it is just an old tree that is on its last stumps.
Such fantastic theorising would explain why Jin-Sung believes his late birth mother has been reincarnated as the tree, hence his unusual obsession with it, manifest through his drawings of “mummy” as the tree, his guarding of bugs found on it, and the sanctuary it provides whenever he feels sad. Min-Sook feels slighted by Jin-Sung connecting with a tree rather than her so once baby Hae-sung arrives, he becomes her primary recipient of her affections.
Jin-Sung does have an ally in Min-Ji, who doesn’t go to school due to severe blood loss, explaining her pale complexion but not her surly, creepy disposition. Despite her quite obnoxious demeanour, Min-Ji seems to empathise with Jin-Sung, encouraging his odd bonding with the tree. This frames Min-Ji as the antagonist of this tale, like a pint-sized puppet master driving a wedge between Jin-Sung and his adoptive parents.
Except this fission was already in place before Hae-sung was born, so we need to look closer to home to discern who the real villains are. Since Jin-Sung is supposed to be the one the audience is meant to fear, dislike, and want to see get their comeuppance, it is hard not to feel for the kid. Being dismissed by Min-Sook and Do-Il then failing to include him in living with the new baby is solely on them – not once did they make an effort to even try to understand Jin-Sung’s feelings or why he gravitates to the titular tree.
Adopting a slow pace and confusing jaunty editing that skips and jumps timelines with little concern for the narrative, only the merest hints of something scary appear in the first hour. This is where I should say that it was saving the best for last, which in truth it does, but to call the horror scenes anything less than risible, poorly executed and fright free would be under selling them.
Whatever the budget was, it was clearly spent on the red wool that is strewn around the home and not on the effects. Most of the nasty attacks by the tree (you read that right) or grisly demises occur off-camera or during a well timed cutaway, implying the lack of facilitating the action in real time. The worst offender is the grandfather being mauled together by ants which will only elicit howls of well deserved derisory laughter.
Offering a last minute reprieve from being a complete thumbs down is the climax, a series of flashbacks cleverly intertwined with the present to explain everything behind Jin-Sung’s disappearance and the parent’s descent into madness. It includes a twist that I really should have seen coming but didn’t, and the best photography and most intense direction of the entire film.
Films are supposed to lead to a big or satisfying climax and whilst the denouement here works in terms of wrapping up the story, the build up to it is sadly lacking in coherence to make it worthwhile. The supernatural aspect is ultimately the get out clause to excuse the parents’ behaviour which is actually something psychologically deeper but without hints of this earlier, we can only interpret the unpleasantness as inherent instead.
I can fully accept that some might find Acacia a potent psychological chiller that may benefit from a repeat watch to appreciate what Park was aiming for, but first impressions are not so encouraging. The story deserve far better execution than it got, and maybe would have served better without the horror direction and stuck with the emotional resonance of its themes instead.