Acacia (2003)



Starring Jin-geun Kim, Hye-jin Shim, Oh-bin Min

Directed by Ki-hyung Park


Acacia, a genus of tree renowned for its durability, strength, long-lasting burn and cultivation. Alright, now look at some of these traits from an analogous standpoint when sizing them up next to the qualities that can be attributed to, and embody, a decent family. Do this and one will find it's no coincidence the subject of Ki-hyung Park's flick is a couple hoping to build a family of their own by adopting a young boy and the emotional obstacles they face to bring happiness under their roof. Ah – and let's get back to the science lesson here – some variety of acacia are also known as being spiny and this film is certainly no smooth, care-free affair. It's no rose-colored microscopic look at the dynamic amongst father, mother and child; rather Acacia has an ulterior purpose. It slowly and deliberately destroys the definition of "family" and haunts you long after it's through.

Let's just say I was blindsided by the experience it forces you to go through – no matter how many similarities you find between this film and any number of bad seed potboilers. Do-il and Mi-sook Kim's troubles begin small (pun intended) when they introduce the adopted Jin-seong to their home. The boy's uncommunicative and he draws pictures of trees – the fascination, we're told, stemming from the belief that his real mother's soul now resides in a tree after dying under one. Jin-seong eventually warms up to his new surroundings in a balance of healthy and peculiar ways. He tends to spend a bit of time perched in the branches of his family's backyard acacia tree; other times he's palling around with the adorable little girl next door who somberly introduces herself as a vampire. Do-il and Mi-sook make due with Jin-seong's light behavioral issues.

A perfect relationship between father, mother and son this is certainly not, but a bond does form and Do-il and Mi-sook's trying gets them everywhere. Maybe they tried a bit too much, especially in the sack, 'cause Mi-sook soon learns she's preggers – a feat that was believed couldn't happen. Cut to months later. There's a new baby in town and Jin-seong's quietly feeling like the odd man out. He begins to externalize his jealous feelings on the newborn; the first time he's caught, he's trying to smother his sibling. The second time, however, Mi-sook lashes out and reprimands the boy who subsequently runs off on a dark and stormy night never to return again. Then things turn sour. Arguments erupt. Nightmares steal away a good night's sleep and Do-il and Mi-sook project a fury onto each other that's so harsh their actions would make Dr. Phil weep like a little girl in utter forfeit of any hopes to reconcile the couple's differences. A relatively dry film comes to a bloody head. Credits roll and one is left with a lot to chew on and you begin to take notice that everything about the narrative is told in a very circular fashion and there's much more lurking beneath the surface than you anticipated (whether you picked up on it the first time around or not).

Ki-hyung Park enters familiar waters in his approach to the material, pushing it on us with a restrained hand as he had done in Whispering Corridors. He opens the film with a blurry vision of an archetypal suburban environment then, for most of the film's duration, keeps us locked within its idyllic confines. This smothering claustrophobia compounded by the escalating familial issues gives off a palpable uneasiness. Even outside forces imposing themselves on the Kim home lend their fair share of tension, such as Mi-sook's mother who voices her disdain for the adopted Jin-seong time and again – in his face, mind you – only lends more fuel to the kid's anger.

If it's the genuine frights you're looking for, I'll admit, there's one that worked on me – a moment of editing trickery, amped-up sound design and creeping red yarn (yes, yarn). There's also some hokey tree/ant attack nonsense, but otherwise expect this one – like a lot of Asian horror entries – to eat at you from the inside out, an effect Park appears to favor over overt scares. His emphasis on the relationship between husband and wife is a slow burn, a challenge actors Jin-geun Kim and Hye-jin Shim reach by brooding their way through each scene, but it's the reliance he places on child actor (what's is it about these kids?!) Oh-bin Min who makes each scene uncomfortable and filled with isolation. Park has a hard time letting go of the story in its closing minutes as it literally continues on under the end credits lessening the fever dreamlike finale, but this is a minor problem compared to the somewhat derivative nature of the film's first half. Acacia will be lost on those expecting Ju-on or Ringu-style thrills; for those, on the other hand, looking for something meticulously told and subtle to groove on that has an almost David Lynch-like take on "at home" dramatic horror (without being over-the-top bizarre), this one is worth checking out.



3 out of 5

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