Korean film Root of Evil a/k/a Acacia is a deliberately paced supernatural thriller, that mostly eschews blood and gore (though there is some of that) in favor of relentlessly tightening the psychological screws. If one can overcome the slow going plot, though, it has a lot to offer.
Mi-sook (Hye-jin Shim) and Do-il (Jin-geun Kim) are a childless couple in their late thirties (she a stay at home wife and artist, and he an OBGYN) who have finally made the decision to adopt. When visiting the orphanage, Mi-sook becomes fascinated by the somewhat macabre paintings of the six year old Jin-sung (Oh-bin Mun), and she is determined to bring the boy into their own family. At first, things go fairly well, though Jin-sung is quite withdrawn, and spends a large amount of his free time sitting in the dead acacia tree in the back yard.
Jin-sung has a hard time accepting that he is a part of their family, and labors under the strange idea that his birth mother became a tree after her death, and that her spirit has moved into the old acacia. His estrangement from his adoptive parents is worsened by Mi-sook's overbearing mother, who thinks that an adopted child is unworthy of her daughter, who should have spent more time and effort trying to conceive a child "of her own blood." When Mi-sook does become miraculously pregnant, the grandmother is delighted, but Jin-sung is at best ambivalent, in no small part because his grandmother clearly prefers his younger brother over himself.
What was mere introversion before, becomes acting out and defiance once an infant is on the scene. Jin-sung pokes and prods at his brother, destroys a delicately woven wall hanging, and burns a decorative fan, given to Mi-sook by her mother, in the process setting fire to the garage. Finally, he declares that Mi-sook is not his mother, that his mother is in fact the acacia tree, and runs out into a wild thunderstorm and disappears. The disappearance of the boy takes everyone hard (except the grandmother), and especially Jin-sung's young friend from next door Min-jee (Na-yoon Jeong), who pines for her missing companion, and spends a lot of time around the acacia herself, which now is mysteriously in bloom. Mi-sook and Do-il's relationship sours, and he has horrible visions of death and blood, often seeing his patients and their children die in his dreams. They become physically abusive to each other, bitter and hateful. As in many horror films, things do not turn out well, but everything is fairly well explained by the end.
Root of Evil works primarily by keeping the pressure on. There are a number of frightening moments, mostly visions or dreams of various characters, that are disturbing and unique, and perhaps could be categorized as jump scares, but these merely serve to change up the nature of the mood. The first half is fairly slow, but once Jin-sung goes missing, the tension never really lets up. This film fits neatly into the creepy kid sub-genre of horror films, and both Jin-sung and Min-jee, with their eerily calm affect and old soul attitudes fit the bill nicely. Jin-sung is clearly the creepier of the two, and while he's around, the audience is wondering whether we should be afraid of him or for him, and his disappearance only adds a unique twist to the question. What happened to Jin-sung that rainy night is not revealed until the very end, and then from several different perspectives. The strands of the plot come together neatly, but it avoids feeling too pat.
While one could wish that the pace was a little quicker, there is little else to quibble with. The film is beautifully shot, making the upper class suburb the family lives in look quite sinister, especially the dead acacia tree. The camera never seems to stop moving, instead always in a slow pan, often reacting in sync with the characters' emotions. The performances are top notch. The child actors are clearly without much experience, but this adds to rather than lessens their impact, giving them a strange, alien quality that fits in nicely with the tone of the piece. The unceasing tension and disturbing high weirdness make Root of Evil frightening enough for horror fans, and the well drawn characters and realistic conflicts between them make it intellectually engaging as well. High octane action this is not, but it is highly recommended.
The video is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks quite good, excepting the occasional lens dirt. The colors are muted and slightly washed out, in keeping with the tone and subject matter, and the shadows are thick and menacing, without obscuring the action.
Audio is available in 5.1 channel DTS and Dolby, and sounds quite good. No hiss or other issue is apparent, and the dialogue is always audible, though to non-Korean speakers the English and Spanish subtitles are helpful. No alternate language track is included.
There are a few extras included, though a few are short and similar enough that they presumably could have been combined into one. They are:
Action & Cut
At just over five minutes, this is behind the scenes footage, with discussion of performances, etc. Fairly interesting.
The World in the Movie
More behind the scenes footage, hardly different than the previous segment.
About the Director
Another couple of minutes of behind the scenes stuff, now mostly focused on the director and his process.
At almost five minutes, this is an interview with director Ki-hyeong Park. He discusses his approach to directing horror / thriller films, working with actors, especially the children, and other issues.
Interviews with the lead actors, Hye-jin Shim and Jin-geun Kim, both discussing their characters and working with Ki-hyeong Park.
A decent, but not outstanding trailer, clocking in at 1:48.
Cast and Crew Commentary
Director Ki-hyeong Park, actor Jin-geun Kim and the production designer take part in this sedate and thoughtful commentary, that still manages to be quite interesting. None of the men involved in the commentary are married or have children, so a lot of time is spent discussing how those themes are intertwined in the film, and how they dealt with them having no direct experience. Lots of anecdotes on the filmmaking process as well, such as having to use artificial grass and the challenges to shooting in an actual house as opposed to a set. All in all quite interesting. NB that the commentary is done in Korean, and has the option of displaying either English or Spanish translation. It's a little awkward at first, but for those who don't speak Korean it is the only way to get this kind of insight.
Root of Evil is a thoughtful and effective supernatural thriller, with realistically portrayed characters and themes that are relevant to many, especially those who might be young children, adopted or not. It's slow at times, but never lets up on the psychological pressure, and maintains a sense of dread and unease throughout. This is a film that works, and makes it seem easy.