I never thought it would be a typical horror movie.
—Ki-Hyung Park, commentary, Acacia
Director Ki-Hyung Par considers Acacia his personal statement on adoption in Korea. During the DVD commentary track, he details his beliefs on adoption, especially his sense of “dishonor” that Korea “is the nation that sends the highest numbers of children overseas for adoption.”
Park’s commentary helps to explain basic adoption issues and controversies in Korea, essential when attempting to discern Acacia‘s themes. Co-written with Sung Ki-Young, the film focuses on upper middle class parents, Do-il (Kim Jin-geun) and Mi-sook (Hye-jin Shim), who feel doubts when, after they adopt Jin-sung (Oh-bin Mun), Mi-sook becomes pregnant.
These ugly feelings have to do with Jin-sung’s disturbed disposition. At six, he’s older than most adopted children, and he’s not the most adjusted orphan on the block, spending his days sitting in the acacia tree in his new backyard, or drawing faceless sketches reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream. But his real troubles begin when he overhears a conversation Mi-sook has with her meddling mother (Lee Young-hee), who attempts to give Mi-sook an amulet for conception (“It’s always better to have one of your own”). Following the birth of Mi-sook’s baby, Jin-sung cracks. He hears Mi-sook make a flippant comment about returning him to the orphanage, confronts her about her lack of concern for him (angry that he’s “just get another one!”), and then he’s gone.
Park’s film is divided into two sections: pre- and post-vanishing child. The first concerns Jin-sung’ lack of security with his new family. The second tracks Mi-sook and Do-il’s gradual realization that their conventional desire for the “perfect” family has actually caused Jin-sung’s disappearance. Acacia twists from a regular-seeming melodrama to a psycho-supernatural mystery. Where is Jin-sung, and how does his adoptive family go on with him out of the picture?
The answer lies with the acacia tree. Rotten and ant-ridden for years, when Jin-sung disappears, it sprouts small leaves and then luxurious white flowers. As the tree blooms, odd things start happening around the house: a pin shows up in Do-il’s morning rice, and the scent from one of those white flowers sends Mi-sook’s mother into a coma.
Park notes in his commentary that he considered leaving out the link between the disappearance and tree altogether, but decided to reveal Jin-sung’s fate as the end credits roll. “I always agonize over how kind I should be to the audience,” he says during the DVD’s 20-minute behind-the-scenes piece. “In other words, if I am going to set limits on how much I am going to explain or if I am going to omit it and let people draw conclusions and make guesses.” The revelation of what went on in the household prior to Jin-sung’s departure is less “kind” than his desire that Acacia serve as a “turning point,” inspiring his fellow Koreans to “look at adoption differently.”
“The characters in the movie,” Park says, “think they can do anything, but in the end these people are not free from kinship ties.” Acacia challenges notions of “real” families and parenting, and what it means to give of oneself when nurturing children. Park notes that audiences tend to consider the film a negative assessment of adoption per se, but it is not Jin-sung’s adoption that causes problems; rather, it is Mi-sook and Do-il’s response to it. Park shows that adoption takes “tremendous responsibility and self-sacrifice,” which these parents are unwilling to make. Jin-sung is already an independent person when he arrives at their home, and takes effort to understand. And he becomes a catalyst for Mi-sook and Do-il to rethink their conception of family.