Straining to plant itself in the horror garden somewhere between “The Shining” and “The Omen,” helmer Park Ki-hyung’s “Acacia” never takes root in the imagination nor blooms as a sheer frightener. Yarn about a boy who spooks out his adoptive parents and has strange empathy with a large tree is the least successful of Park’s three movies to date, all of which blend psychodrama with the supernatural. A mildly received closer at the Pusan fest that subsequently opened softly, pic might just pass muster as an ancillary item for hardcore horror nuts in Western markets.
Park has yet to equal his powerful first pic, “Whispering Corridors” (1998), a creepy mix of social, sexual and supernatural pressures in a girls’ high school that spawned a small franchise of movies by other directors (“Memento Mori,” “Wishing Stairs”). His sophomore outing, “Secret Tears” (2000), was memorable in patches but didn’t go the distance dramatically.
“Acacia,” too, has some striking ideas, but the screenplay doesn’t work them out in any cohesive way. Too often, the pic expects the audience to accept developments not justified dramatically or emotionally.
Obstetrician Kim Do-il (Kim Jin-geun) and his tapestry-artist wife, Choi Min-suk (Shim Hye-jin), are a comfortably off, thirtysomething couple who share a house with Do-il’s father. Deciding to adopt a child, they pick 6-year-old Lee Jin-seong (Mun Woo-bin), after Min-suk is intrigued by the kid’s Munch-like paintings at the orphanage.
Right from the get-go, the movie starts to lose the viewer, as (a) there’s almost no backgrounding to what is clearly an already troubled marriage, and (b) there’s no discernible reason why they’d choose an unearthly tyke with a Damien haircut and satanic eyes to match.
Sure enough, Jin-seong soon starts acting majorly weird, cycling around like the boy in “The Shining,” playing with insects and refusing to adopt the Kim family name. When he tries to burn down the garden shed, mom just tells him they love him.
A year or so later, after Min-suk has managed to have a child of her own — another unexplained development — Jin-seong sulks bigtime as he sits in the garden’s huge acacia tree, which he believes is the reincarnation of his dead birth-mother. After Jin-seong goes missing, a needle turns up in dad’s rice bowl one morning, mom later starts hemorrhaging through the mouth, and the acacia tree comes magically into bloom. That’s just the first hour.
Park still shows a keen eye for color and its psychological use, such as a mysterious, bright-red skein that turns up whenever a character is close to cracking up. Against the film’s cold, desaturated hues — rendered digitally in post — this is visually very striking, but the idea is used simply as a shock element, with no explanation or justification.
In the same way, the couple’s marriage is never examined at a sympathetic level. Elements in the pic are simply presented and mechanically juggled round, with no attempt to engage the audience emotionally.
Same goes for the “character” of the acacia tree, whose presence doesn’t dominate the movie as it should and whose bond with the kid is never properly delineated. By the final reels, as the body count is rising and mom is walking round with some lethal scissors, auds have tuned out long ago.
Shim, a quality face of the ’90s who hasn’t made a pic since Kang Woo-seok’s splendid Tracy & Hepburn-like “Bedroom and Courtroom” five years ago, seems adrift in the movie without a real script for guidance. Though the 36-year-old actress makes a refreshingly mature female lead, it’s disappointing to see her return in such an iffy vehicle. Kim is just OK as the husband, while Mun is well cast as the maleficent moppet.
Visual effects centered on the tree are fine, but the music, employing classical gobbets like Satie’s “Gnossiennes” suite, is a mish-mash. Film also has the strangest live-action background to the end roller seen for some time.