With only three films under his belt, director Park Ki-young is far from prolific, but then it appears he has his own steady methods when it comes to making films. His body of work though slight has been effective to some degree; as for Bimil (Secret Tears) I can’t say, but as for high school horror flicks he managed to provide one of the better tales out there with his 1998 debut, Whispering Corridors. While flawed it was interesting enough before a slew of copycats emerged from South Korea. For his third feature, Acacia he sticks to his horror roots (that really wasn’t an intended pun. Oh sod it, it is now anyway) and delivers perhaps his best work to date.
The story takes place in a little town in South Korea, where happy couple Mi-sook (Shim Hye-jin) and Do-il (Kim Jin-geun) long for a child. With them being unable to conceive they decide to adopt and they visit the local orphanage, where Mi-sook is drawn to a particular painting. When she meets the six-year-old boy who painted it she decides that he’s the one to take home. Quickly enough they adopt Lee Jin-sung (Moon Woo-bin) and begin their new family life. The boy settles in well and immediately takes a liking to the dying Acacia tree which stands in the back yard; however his attitude begins to change and he starts to cause trouble within the household. Some time passes and Mi-sook finally falls pregnant and Jin-sung worries about how a new addition to the family might affect his position. 9-months later and little Hae-sung is born, which soon prompts Jin-sung to run away with his new friend, Min-jee (Jung Na-yoon). While he is gone the Acacia tree begins to bloom and heal itself, but at the same time a series of accidents take place. What could the cause of all this blooming nonsense be?
Horror cinema of late has been far from inspiring, least of which those coming from Korea. Acacia doesn’t fill you with hope off the back of its synopsis, and furthermore recent output dictates that it should probably be an awful film. Surprisingly Acacia is actually a good one; sure it plays off the creepy kid premise, while throwing in some ghostly happenings and plot twists but that’s no bad thing when it’s executed so well.
Obviously Acacia is likely to divide opinions when it comes to the handling of its third act however. Think more psychological drama, rather than ghost induced horror and you’ll likely get more out of the film with all preconceptions discarded. Of course Park Ki-young takes a risk here in a bid to confound to viewer, yet stays fully realised by the time that the final credits roll. Indeed the final act may be considered as a real killer to the events that preceded it, and yet despite it not finishing in the way that it clearly built itself up towards it still pulls off an effective shock twist. It can easily be argued that it’s hardly unique; that it’s trying too hard not to fall into the kinds of conventional (i.e. tired) twists that plague the bulk of contemporary horror, but all the same it keeps its own identity. Saying that, the film manages to actually surprise; the final moments cannot be considered predictable due to the viewer’s pre-conceived notions. This in turns makes for something that can easily be looked upon as being anti-climactic; true. Upon first viewing there’s an uncertain feeling to be had, yet upon reflection it really isn’t that bad. Acacia does overburden itself at times though, and this is attributed toward its on/off manipulative approach. There’s a whole piece about ants, which is hardly the most interesting of concepts and ants have to be the most rubbish thing ever when it comes to film, but at least they don’t dominate proceedings. Stemming from this comes a form of commentary that weaves itself into the narrative, leading us to believe that nature will ultimately come together to take care of itself, yet nothing can be taken quite so seriously come its final revelations. This later becomes further hindered when a character who addresses such a thing becomes a victim, which causes an abruption to the film’s flow; though the editing here is largely to be blamed, alongside some awkward cranking and CG effects. But enough of my ambiguity, thou shall not reveal spoilers here.
If Park Ki-young has done anything to improve his craft then it’s most certainly visible within this film. Experience has taught him a few things and he now takes pieces from his debut film and applies them a whole lot more effectively to Acacia. The direction is tighter, far more methodical than one might expect. In true tradition the film moves at a pace that can only reward the most patient of viewers familiar with Asian horror, though naturally in order to move the story forward it takes certain liberties when illustrating time changes; for example the transition from pregnancy to birth. That’s not to say that the film is completely dull; it just doesn’t want to force feed you. And so the director takes his time in setting up the environment in order to make us comfortable. To start with we have the quaint little suburban-like town and a pretty normal looking tree; hardly the things that chill the spine, but then the film is never really that scary anyway. So then the question would be “where does that leave it”? Well, just when you think you’ve seen it all there can be the occasional, interesting glimmer of hope. Ki-young clearly has his framing sorted out, which elevates the photography to a height that it needs to be; aside from one or two impromptu crash zooms its visuals matches its pacing to a tee. In addition he manages to make a tree look imposing later on, and although the house transforms into a giant knitting pattern toward the end it is staged remarkably well.
Bringing us then to the inhabitants we have a well rounded cast. Part of the key to Acacia‘s success is the convincing portrayals of its characters. The cast is light, but this is an inevitable attribute for such an intimate production. Our key players consist of a single family and a young girl who lives next door. As a family unit, Shim Hye-jin (who had taken a five-year break after completing the wonderful Bedroom and Courtroom and Paradise Lost in 1998) and Kim Jin-geun bring a believable quality to their roles; they have their ups and downs like any family and it is in watching their eventual decline that we have a decent study, which offers very real sentiments with relation to paternal and maternal difficulties. Both actors take their subject seriously and they never ham it up, so kudos for their good work. Likewise the children involved are suitably cast and the director succeeds in not falling into any trap by having them overplay their roles. There’s no screwing up of faces and/or constant screaming; just subtle performances that rely on a simple glance, whether it be sorrowful or disturbing.
Tartan continues to churn out their Asia Extreme titles at a rate of one a day. Being caught up in the distribution frenzy, Acacia squeezes through with the most minimal of extras. They’ve not even had time to put in a collection of trailers promoting their own products!
Presented anamorphically at 2.35:1, Acacia is something of a strange looking film. Using various light sources, natural or otherwise you can expect a varied look throughout; in some instances the transfer looks washed out and whites are overblown - clearly an artistic decision but one that slightly mars the overall transfer. Contrast levels are slightly high, leaving some grey area and Edge Enhancement is present. Wide angle shots leave some soft areas, which can’t be helped but it still retains fine detail, with generally pleasing colour levels and skin tones. As a final note this is an NTSC to PAL conversion.
For sound we’re spoiled with Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS Digital Surround 5.1. But I know you guys want to hear how the DTS sounds so I’ll tell you. The DTS is definitely the strongest player here and puts each surround channel to good use. While dialogue is clear and focused centrally, plenty of atmosphere is channelled through the rears; predominantly during rainy scenes or elevated tension, when the score gets to kick in a little. This isn’t all scares though so don’t expect a huge workout, though there are one or two subtle shots that resonate just that little better to provide a typical cheap scare.
Optional English subtitles are available and I’m happy to report that I noticed no grammatical errors. These are well placed and easy to read, in a standard bold white font.
Nothing really to shout out about but enough to satisfy. The following extras include optional English subtitles:
Making of Featurette
This is made up of five segments that can only be played individually upon selecting the feature; these are also of low audio quality. First up is “Action and Cut”, which runs for 5:12. This is a quick look at the filming of the fire sequence, where the director instructs Shim Hye-jin how to approach the burning shed, and later advising woo-bin how to play the scene. From there we get a few shots around the tree and inside the house, where a couple of the quarrelling scenes take place. Some night times shooting follows under wet conditions and finally we go onto the hospital set for a few bloody takes. Next on the menu is “The World in the Movie”. This runs for 3:52 and is a basic look at getting the right details for specific scenes and making sure lighting etc is trouble free. At 2:39, “About the Director” is a brief insight into how Park Ki-young works on set. They like to emphasise this as being about his passion but it’s nothing more than a few clips of him instructing people on set. “Cast Interviews” are next, running for a measly 5:02 and only involving Kim Jin-geun and Shim Hye-jin. The questions are here are very standard; ranging from “describe your character” and “What were the most challenging scenes”? to “What’s it like working with the director”? Finally we have an “Interview with Director”, which runs for 4:47. Here he explains why he wanted to make the movie and provides his views on the horror genre. He embellishes a little from time to time, as the film is nowhere near as scary as he seems to envision it, and he’s also very serious in conversation.
Acacia Trailer (1:59)
This is a decent trailer, though it includes some spoilers that might help some to work out the twist sooner. Avoid watching it would be my best advice.
Acacia does have its shortcomings but it also manages to entertain, which is a rare thing these days when it comes to Korean horror. The main critical point is that its third act may disappoint viewers, or it may prove to be a success; the film tries so hard to set up a certain premise and carries it out much more differently that we might have expected. Otherwise it’s a pretty solid, psychological drama that has been presented adequately by Tartan.