OCTOBER 13, 2011
Good or bad, I always respect a movie that I can’t tell where it’s going after the first 15 minutes. I don’t mean like, “I didn’t guess who the killer was”, I mean I wasn’t even sure what genre it would be. Root Of Evil (formerly Acacia) starts off a lot like Orphan, and even seems to be heading into similar killer kid territory (yay!) but switches gears midway through and becomes more of a tragic supernatural/ghost-type story, which might be a “lesser” genre in my eyes (look, I like seeing kids kill people) but was no less compelling.
See, that’s what can happen when you base a horror film around characters, not a particular subgenre. This isn’t so much a ghost movie as it is about a couple dealing with what is obviously an unhappy marriage, and how the things they do to repair it only end up making it worse. If you strip away any supernatural/horror elements, you’re still left with that rather sad story; maybe not as interesting a tale, but there would be SOMETHING there to latch on to. Take the killer out of a slasher movie and what are you left with, 99% of the time? Nothing. A bunch of kids hanging out in the woods and then going home, I guess.
Also, because it’s not really a killer kid movie, we are allowed to see the stuff those films often leave ambiguous for its first half. Not too long after the kid (who seems troubled from the start, using dead bugs in his artwork for starters) arrives at their home, he destroys one of the mother’s hand-knit… things (I couldn’t tell if it was a clothing item in progress or some piece of art). When a fire breaks out in the tool shed, he admits that it was him without any resistance, and when they have a baby of their own he tries to suffocate it. All of this in the first 40 minutes, and again, it’s not a killer kid movie! From a “body count” point of view, it’s a very slow movie, but it certainly doesn’t lack in exciting visuals.
Even better – it’s coherent! It’s a family-based Korean horror film from 2003, same as Tale Of Two Sisters (which it was compared to on its IMDb page), and I was so baffled by that one I couldn’t even manage to write a review. But here, while some elements are left a bit vague, I never felt totally in the dark with what was happening, and those vague moments seemed intentionally designed to spark discussion, as opposed to just being merely confusing. Writer/director Ki-hyeong Park - you're one of the good ones!
That said, it still has a couple of “Whaaaa?” moments, such as when the entire house gets covered in red string, a terrifically weird/creepy visual but one that I can’t logically comprehend. And like Lake Mungo, it seems that the screenwriter couldn’t make up his mind over whether or not the movie had supernatural elements; we see flashbacks that more or less explain everything in a real world way, but then a final shot goes back into supernatural territory. Some of the camerawork also annoyed me; at one point it feels like you’re watching a found footage movie as a lengthy scene goes by without any cuts and the camera constantly whipping around to focus on the most important character of that moment. I get the idea of jarring camerawork to simulate the uneasiness of the situation and such, but when it so closely emulates another type of movie it just takes me out of it entirely.
Also, the mother was obnoxiously slow to react to things. When she sees the kid tearing apart her yarn thing, she just stands there for a few moments before finally walking over to him and putting a stop to it. Likewise, when the fire catches her eye, she not only watches it for a few seconds from her 2nd floor window, she also stops to put on a pair of shoes when she finally decides to run outside and attempt to extinguish it. Since we ultimately side more with her than the father, these moments make it hard to take her seriously, as she comes off as somewhat pathetic.
Still, minor issues in an otherwise fully solid horror film. As I’ve said before, when I nitpick its only because the movie is good enough to care about the things that are a little off. If Mary Winstead delayed too long to react to the damn Thing ripping a guy’s chest apart, I wouldn’t notice – I’d still be steaming about giant plot holes or the fact that this supposed prequel felt a lot more like a remake (right down to the flamethrower malfunctioning in the break room). Plus I have a thing for horror movies that are kind of sad, something that our Asian filmmakers excel at. When I was watching Hell Night at the New Bev I started pondering the exterior reality of the film, how much of a bummer it was that these kids were all dead when they were pretty likable – but I had to go way outside the box and overthink it to reach that point. In this (and other K-horrors, such as Whispering Corridors), the tragic fallout over the loss of a loved one is actually part of the plot.
If I didn’t already like the movie, my tune would have improved, maybe even changed after watching the interview with the director, where he starts off by saying that he likes horror films. Yay! After that Barilli guy the other day, this was a relief. Not that it can’t be done, but I think the number of good horror movies that are made by directors who don’t care for the genre is a very small one. Even if they want to lean toward the more dramatic side of the story, it is essential that a filmmaker respects the craft behind a good horror film and knows what makes them work. Otherwise, you end up with Perfume Of The Lady In Black, where a bunch of cannibals show up out of nowhere in the last 30 seconds because the filmmaker doesn’t think horror movies need to make sense anyway.
Said interview is probably the best feature; the 3 behind the scenes featurettes are pretty bland (and needlessly separated – they’re all the same sort of fly on the wall look at the film’s production), and the interview with the actors is a bit too dry for my tastes (the actress comes off as quite snobby, actually). I also enjoyed the commentary by Park, actor Jin-geun Kim, and one of the producers (name escapes me), though if you aren’t interested in the technical aspect of filmmaking I wouldn’t recommend it; they discuss things like cranes and dolly tracks at length, and even detail the process of digital grading at one point. However, they also provide a little context for the adoption process in Korea (tougher than ours in the US), and like the Italians, aren’t afraid to be candid over what they feel is a poor acting choice or bad effect. But most importantly, they joke around with one another and bust balls every now and then (particularly at the producer, who apparently had to maintain the fake grass on set in addition to his more legitimate functions). As the interviews and behind the scenes material on most Asian horror that I’ve seen is quite serious in tone, it’s nice to hear them having a little fun. Also, thank you Palisades Tartan for including subtitles for the commentary – I’ve actually come across Region 1 titles with foreign language commentaries sans any way for the typical Region 1 user to make use of them. It makes up for the lack of a dub track for the film itself, though luckily it’s not a very dialogue heavy movie so I was able to focus on the main part of the frame most of the time.
If you can’t stand slower paced horror movies, I wouldn’t recommend this one – it wouldn’t change your mind the way something like Session 9 might. But if you are a fan of those and/or of Asian fare, this is highly recommended. More accessible than Two Sisters but far from a generic ghost movie, it’s the sort of offbeat entry I wish I could stumble across more often. Plus, any movie where a little kid claims that his mom is a tree is automatically a winner.
What say you?