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Acacia
cast: Hye-Jin Shim, Jin-Geun Kim, Oh-Bin Mun, and Na-Yoon Jeong

director: Ki-Hyung Park

101 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
In football, we have the concept of the feeder club. A feeder club, such as PSV or Seville, never do all that well in big competitions but they have a knack for finding decent players who are snapped up by larger clubs once they mature. In cinematic terms, Korea is in the process of joining Japan and France as an industry that develops talent and ideas that then get swallowed up by the larger and more profitable US film industry. Acacia is another product of South Korean cinema that has managed to reach a wider audience (after the overlooked kinetic action of Volcano High and the wonderfully twisted Oldboy). Sadly, though, while it shows promise it manages to disappoint.

Jin-Sung is an artistically gifted but psychologically scarred orphan who is adopted by a wealthy couple. Despite his initial resistance and an unhealthy fixation with acacia trees, he bonds with the family and begins to let his guard down. However, when the couple unexpectedly conceive their own child, Jin-Sung's problems rise to the surface and soon he is trying to suffocate the baby. When Jin-Sung appears to run away, his entire adopted family begins to unravel. What follows is a descent into madness and death as grandparents are seemingly murdered by trees and Jin-Sung's adoptive parents turn on each other.

Given the seemingly fantastical elements and the fact that it's released over here by Tartan's Asia Extreme label, it would be easy to pigeonhole Acacia as another southeast Asian horror film in the same tradition as The Ring and Dark Water. This is unfortunate as Acacia makes for a disastrous horror film. It is not scary, it is not even thrilling and it is not even completely clear that there are any fantastic elements at work. This would leave us to try to judge it as a psychological thriller but the content of Acacia remains ambiguous as to whether Jin-Sung is actually mad and, as I said before, the film is not thrilling. So, what is it then?

Acacia uses horror and psychological thriller tropes to tell a story that is broadly about the effects of mental illness on a family. There is some wonderfully symbolic use of red wool where Jin-Sung's violence is seemingly triggered by a red jumper his mother knitted for his new brother. This is foreshadowed by dreams of red wool attacking Jin-Sung and the final scenes see the house covered in red wool as if the jumper symbolising the bonds that unite the family literally unravel all over the place. The problem is that while Acacia clearly has some ideas behind it and cleverly remains obscure, the ideas simply are not enough to sell the film.

Acacia is a film that tries to straddle a number of cinematic dilemmas. The first dilemma is Jin-Sung himself; if the director gives away too much information then he sacrifices his carefully constructed aura of mystery and ambiguity. On the other hand, if he does not give enough away then Jin-Sung is weird rather than engaging.

The second dilemma is the family; they are the heart of the film as well as the stage on which the story is played out. As a result, any information you learn about them feeds the emotional force of the film. On the other hand, there is a twist in the tail and too much insight into the family might give it away.

The director fails to straddle either dilemma and messily impales himself on the first horn of the first dilemma and the second horn of the second dilemma. The result is a film that sells its emotional force and the clarity of its ideas in exchange for the overly familiar sense of mystery. Sadly, the characters are not engaging enough to make you want to ask yourself any questions about what really happened. Instead of the animated debate that the endings of films like The Descent and The Usual Suspects generated, all that this film's closing credits are likely to generate are a mild feeling of having been cheated as the director prefers to unsuccessfully flirt with the horror genre rather than fully exploit the main themes of the film. A feeling likely only to be heightened by how long the film takes to build to anything interesting.

All in all not a bad film once you realise it is not The Ring, it is just that it is not a particularly brilliant film either. In fact, it is depressingly average.
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