Directed by Park Ki-hyung, 2003, 101 minutes, starring Shim Hye-jin, Kim Jin-geun, Mun Oh-bin, and Jeong Na-yoon.
Very much a cross between Dark Water, director Park Ki-hyung's previous huge critical and commercial success Whispering Corridors, and its recent Korean contemporary equivalent, A Tale of Two Sisters, Acacia is a truly unique offering to the horror gentre. Released in 2003, the movie displays a remarkable combination of all the emotionality of the first aforementioned film, all the cleverness and unusual plotting of the second, and all the aesthetically gorgeous richness of the third. Consequently it is a fair comparison to say that Acacia is easily as good as all three movies put together, which makes it even sadder that it has been somehow overlooked by horror movie fans looking for a cheap, quick thrill, and well and truly eclipsed by the phenomenal success of its closest relative, A Tale of Two Sisters.
Indeed, like both Dark Water and A Tale of Two Sisters, Acacia has a great deal to say on the subject of the darkest depths to which even a "normal" human soul can sink: an organic, gothic and severe exploration of the decay of a family's internal relationships, which were already on shaky ground before the addition of a new member who serves as a catalyst, triggering its complete implosion with devastating effects.
Also like the two aforementioned movies, you could easily argue that Acacia is one of those rarest of beasts: a horror movie which is drawn more from a female perspective than a male one. There are very strong female themes throughout including childbearing, parenthood (particularly from the maternal point of view), the death and reincarnation of a mother figure, and even the father's job as an obstetric/gynaecological consultant and surgeon. Add to that the continually recurring visual theme of the red wool the mother uses in her craft work and which is used to incredible, creepy effect in both dreams and reality, which I took personally to symbolise an umbilical cord (a view supported by the accompanying artwork for the movie, which shows the mother "cutting the cord" attached to the adoptive son with shears), and it's fairly self-evident that this is a movie whose major themes are centred around some of the oldest and most powerful forces in the world - childbirth, death, family and, to a certain extent, reincarnation.
From the point of view of the plot, like Whispering Corridors, Park Ki-hyung gives the movie a pleasing roundness - no open-ended 'subject to viewer interpretation' themes here, the whole piece works to a full explanation of all the events in the story - bar the dream sequences and hallucinatory elements, which are left wholly up to the audience to figure out later. But on rewatching, even these have mostly a fairly simple interpretation which gives even more depth to the motives behind the events of the movie.
The quality of the acting is outstanding throughout: the two child actors, Mun Oh-bin as Jin-sung, the pivotal role of the adopted son, and Jeong Na-yoon as his little friend-next-door Min-jee, deliver extraordinarily mature and paced performances, considering their age. (South Korea does tend to produce the best child actors in the world - there must be a hell of a stage school somewhere over there ;-)) Likewise, Shim Hye-jin plays the mother beautifully, imbuing the role with a mixture of resentment, brooding rage and a certain degree of madness in an amazingly taut way.
There is an interesting use of music, too: as in quite a few titles of late, hardly any 'traditional' music is used, favouring organic sounds in a very Kiyoshi Kurosawa-type way - indeed, this movie also reminded me very much of Kourei in many ways, but not in any kind of derivative sense. One use of Erik Satie's Gnossiennes during a sequence provided an interesting counterpoint - the scene is a happy family gathering, but the melancholic tone of the music tells an entirely different story. It's a clever and very effective way to provide extra insight into the events taking place.
As for the cinematography, there is a strange, almost artificial quality that makes you feel like you're almost watching a play in a theatre rather than a movie: from time to time it looks like the backgrounds of the shots are beautiful photographs and gives the viewer a weird sense of disorientation, almost claustrophobic, as if there are no real open spaces, but rather that everyone is acting on a sound stage in front of a printed backdrop. The lighting also suggests a certain dreamlike and trancey artificiality - there's little in the way of natural light used here. Even the grass looks uncannily like astroturf. Everything is shot in bizarrely bright and unnaturally idyllic and 'perfect' colours, to begin with at least: as the plot develops, the colour scheme becomes progressively muted and gothic in both colour and composition. The way that lyrical, creepy and beautiful dream sequences are interwoven into the very fabric of reality throughout the movie is rendered at times breathtakingly poetic by the sheer beauty of the imagery.
Kim Mi-sook (Shim Hye-jin) is an attractive art teacher in her early thirties, and married to successful gynaecologist and obstetrician Do-il (played by Kim Jin-geun). They live together with Do-il's father in a normal, quiet suburb of a small city. Ironically perhaps given Do-il's profession, Mi-sook and her husband cannot have children, though he is very keen on kids and wants to adopt one as soon as possible. However, his wife is not so enthusiastic about the idea as she enjoys her career, and is not afraid of making her feelings known about it.
After some time (and a great deal of pressure), she gives in, at least as far as visiting the local orphanage goes. To her surprise, Mi-sook sees on the wall an almost identical child's drawing to one she refused to judge at a recent school competition. It was made by a boy in the children's home who always draws the same kind of weird trees and figures and is absolutely obsessed with trees in general.
After meeting the little boy, whose name is Jin-sung (Mun Oh-bin), Mi-sook forms an immediate emotional bond with him, as he seems very quiet, intelligent and sweet. The couple decide, in a whirlwind way, to adopt him. However, rather ominously, the moment he arrives at their house, he spends his first few minutes staring at the huge, imposing, and very sickly acacia tree in the back garden.
Almost the moment he moves in, rather odd things start to happen. Insects start to invade the house, and there's a new feeling of tension between all the family members, who are having real difficulty adjusting to Jin-sung, and he to them. And despite Mi-sook's persuasion, he won't change his original surname, Lee, for his new adopted surname, Kim. Jin-sung resolutely refuses to let go of the idea that his true birth mother is still alive.
It seems that the person who understands Jin-sung the best is Do-il's elderly father, who encourages him to develop a relationship with the particular tree which seems to hold the boy's interest, and he does so, talking to it and comforting it, and applying a special dried acacia-leaf charm to the trunk to help it recover.
The tension between Mi-sook and Jin-sung deepens daily, fostering a growing resentment in her towards him for breaking up the peacefulness of the family home. Of course the resentment extends towards her husband, for nagging her and putting her in a difficult position as regards adopting a child and giving up her career. For his part, Jin-sung runs away, only to be brought back. It would seem that there's a glimmer of hope though: a little girl from next door comes across the fence to talk to Jin-sung, name of Min-jee (Jeong Na-yoon). The pair become very good friends and play together a lot, and Jin-sung even starts to cheer up a bit.
However, much to the delight of Mi-sook's mother, it turns out that Mi-sook is actually pregnant, much to everyone's surprise. Naturally, Jin-sung is not only now feeling rejected, but is also worried that he'll end up being pushed completely out by the new baby - which, of course, will be Mi-sook and Do-il's "real" child. Mi-sook gives birth to a baby boy, Hae-sung. (A bit insensitive giving the baby part of Jin-sung's name too, or a misguided attempt to create a little family unity?) Either way, Jin-sung is indeed pushed out to a certain extent, and as a result takes his anger and frustration out on the baby, trying to smother it to death, hitting it and poking it, to his entire family's outrage and disgust.
Now the family unit is really in decline. The adoptive father doesn't want Jin-sung anywhere near the baby; Mi-sook tries to argue, but it's obvious she no longer wants Jin-sung around. Mi-sook's mother always hated and feared Jin-sung, so no change there. Even Jin-sung's friend Min-jee is becoming frightened of him. It's decided that he should return to the orphanage - however, no-one tells him this, he finds out by overhearing his adoptive mother discussing it with her mother. This horrible rejection sparks a row so violent and far-reaching that Jin-sung runs away again - and this time almost no-one really bothers to chase him.
The next day, the family are still waiting to hear from the little boy. In their anguish and stress, they fragment yet further, turning on each other, blaming each other. And to add extra fuel to the fire, overnight the almost-dead acacia tree that all of them have subconsciously feared since Jin-sung moved in, has inexplicably sprouted new leaves and is returning to life in a strange and unnatural way. In addition to that, nasty and malevolent things have started to happen to each of them, making them mistrust and fear each other... after all, Jin-sung is no longer around to blame, so who is doing these horrible things to each of them? What is the truth about Jin-sung, and the mystery surrounding his mother's death? What malicious forces has Jin-sung set in motion, and is he even still alive? As the acacia tree thrives and blooms, so grows its evil influence over the family...
Even though my love for this film is pretty much a given, I do have one tiny criticism to make: it's a bit on the slow side, especially through the beginning segments - much in the same way as that other big-name tree-based genre movie Charisma could be said to be "a bit on the slow side", stretching its story over three hours at a proverbial snail's pace. Despite being shorter in length, Acacia is not even as sprightly as that. Initially at least, the "action" (a bit of a misnomer) crawls by like an elderly slug on salted asphalt. It's more than a little painful at times, which from a long-term hardened fan of slow Asian movie pacing, is quite some statement.
Granted, the scares - such as they are - are more based on the concept of something unpredictable and wholly unexpected happening, rather than something that makes your hair stand on end. But this merely added to the enjoyment of the movie for me: thoroughly sick and tired of Ring rip-offs, I was looking for something which bore no resemblance to the usual glut of fake Sadamaras, and with Acacia my desire for something new was at last satisfied.
Acacia is a work of unearthly, remarkable and deeply disturbing beauty. It will badly disappoint anyone looking for blood, guts and gore: some people have even gone so far as to say that it barely qualifies as a horror movie due to a lack of full-on scares. I disagree completely. Park Ki-hyung, like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hideo Nakata, is a true master of the art of building an atmosphere of edgy, almost unbearable tension, and then smacking you full in the face with something so atavistically unacceptable, it can barely even be comprehended. It's a subtle portrait of the complete psychological destruction of a simple family unit, partly due to external factors, and as much to their own insecurities and terrors within as to supernatural forces of evil, a terrifying insight into the darkness of human nature.
There can be no higher recommendation - this is essential viewing for anyone who enjoys something more mature, harrowing and profound than a cheap jump. Acacia delivers something of rare visual beauty, coupled with a powerful feeling of intense sorrow, tension and dread that lingers in the mind for a long time after the film has ended.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 9/10
Violence: 7/10, surprisingly high for what is, essentially, a tree-based film
Ants: Aaaaaaaaaaarghhh!!! Get the bug spray!!!! ;-)
Scary Kids: 2
Scary Trees: 1
Scary Wool: about 10,000 balls I reckon
Speed: S....... L........ O.............. W........ zzzzz ;-)
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: a small eezy-squeezy bottle
Films in a Similar Style: A Tale of Two Sisters, Dark Water, Kourei
*** Highly Recommended! ***
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This film is being released by Tartan Video in the UK.
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.tartanvideo.com/ht_title_template.asp?TITID=517 - buy the movie from Tartan's own site
http://www.monstersatplay.com/features/phillyfest2004/fest-acacia.php - positive review from Monsters at Play
http://www.flipsidemovies.com/acacia.html - and another by Jim Harper at Flipside Movies
http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=57783 - comprehensive review from DVD Times
http://slasherpool.starbase.se/htm/reviews/acacia.htm - Slasherpool thought much the same about the film as we did
http://www.dvdlard.co.uk/Content.aspx?ContentID=2094 - this guy hated it, spends half the review talking about other movies, thinks A Tale of Two Sisters is just average and holds The Isle for a masterpiece. Make of that what you will...
http://www.shuqi.org/asiancinema/reviews/acacia.shtml - review and picture gallery
http://www.asianfilms.org/korea/acacia.html - synopsis and general information