Root of Evil (2003)
Director: Park Ki-hyeong
Writers: Park Ki-hyeong
Starring: Hye-jin Shim, Jin-geun Kim and Oh-bin Mun

The Plot: Kim Do-il (Kim Jin-geun) is a successful teacher who desperately wants a child, unfortunately his art-teacher wife Choi Mi-sook (Shim Hye-jin) doesn’t feel the same. The two are unwilling to physically have a child of their own at this point, and they often debate about adopting a child. When Kim finally makes a case for the adoption, his patient wife begrudgingly goes along with the plan. When they arrive at the adoption agency, his wife is immediately drawn to a fantastic painting on the wall. The painting was apparently done by the young Jin-sung and Choi makes up her mind very quickly on just what child she wants to adopt. The parents bring young Jin-sung home only to find that the young boy might have a few very interesting obsessions. His quiet nature is creepy enough, but his fascination with the dead Acacia tree in this family’s backyard seems to hint at something even more sinister. As this new family unit begins to learn to function with one another, they quickly find that this boy has a multitude of secrets that will inevitably rip this family apart.

The Review
I have to confess that the artwork for Root of Evil did not immediately endear me as an audience member. With a graphic on the back of the DVD case that shows a young boy with a paste-colored complexion sitting in a tree, it seemed like a title that just screamed out “generic Asian horror!” While I do enjoy Asian horror, and was a leading advocate during the J-horror boom of the early 2000s, it is hard to fight the knee-jerk reaction one feels when seeing yet another film featuring a dark haired Asian child who haunts a group of adults. However, even if I do occasionally feel slight pangs of negativity directed towards new Asian horror films that take this well-traveled road of ‘the evil child’ villain, I must admit that I am still a big fan of Asian horror in general. This interest was a part in why, despite my disapproval of the DVD back cover, I found myself fairly excited to sit down and watch Root of Evil. More specifically, it was my interest in South Korean horror that definitely sold me on checking this title out as soon as it came in the mail. Despite fare warning from my knowledgeable Korean-film friends, who have told me that the majority of Korean horror is absolutely awful, I am still curious to see what all of the fuss is about. So, the question you may be asking at this point is “is Root of Evil really all that bad?” For my money, the answer to that is a definitive no. While I won’t argue that Root of Evil is a prime candidate for best Asian horror film of the decade, it is certainly an intriguing project to say the least.

Aside from A Tale of Two Sisters, there are few South Korean horror films that have really made it big on the international scale. Phone was mildly popular during the Asian horror boom, but I honestly can not think of many people who actually “liked” that movie in the least. So, knowing the negative reputation that most South Korean horror titles have, I had prepared myself for the worst when watching this film. As it turns out, that really wasn’t necessary. If you read this site for any period of time, you may pick up on the fact that I am a big fan of films taking a unique direction. Even if the movie turns out to be a total failure, normally I will give some kind of credit to a filmmaker if they decide to do something mildly unusual. Anything that deviates from general genre patterns is OK by me. Root of Evil may be a lot of things, but I have to say that it rarely holds still long enough to follow genre patterns. A horror film that deviates from several subgenres in the midst of the movie, Root of Evil may not be perfect but it certainly has my respect for doing things in a unique way.

The “evil kid” genre can be both a blessing and a curse when you really get to thinking about it. Ever since the days of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, there has seemingly been very little new added to this genre, despite several films attempting to do so throughout the years. The Good Son was essentially a rebirth of The Omen, despite no one asking for it, but only with slightly less Satanism thrown into the mix. Most recently, we have seen Orphan pick up a decent push from horror fans. The film, while not perfect, offered a slight variation on the “evil child” mythos. Although Orphan inevitably received mixed reactions from mainstream critics, as all horror films do, I am of the opinion that it was a fun example of what can go ‘right’ with this genre if the filmmaker knows what they are doing. Root of Evil also steps into this category, but only during the first two thirds of the film’s running time. During this introduction of the Jin-sung character, the audience doesn’t know what to make of this kid. The filmmakers do their best to fill our heads with an extreme amount of doubt when it comes to the Jin-sung character. Although his intentions remain rather ambiguous, director and writer Ki-hyeong Park does a fantastic job of establishing red herrings throughout his story. With scenes that play out in one context, but which are seen with a much different context later on in the movie, the writer/director plays games with his audience and secures himself a place on my “directors to keep an eye on” list.

Anyone can say anything they want about Root of Evil, but they can’t say that it doesn’t look good without outright lying. This film features some pretty amazing cinematography, there is no getting past that. The film is filled to the brim with very textured scenes that fill the foreground as well as the background. The lighting is bright for the most part, but it captures just the right amount of darkness in order to create atmosphere in the midst of all of this daytime shooting. The post-production work seems to have added a very high contrast during many of the outside sequences, in comparison to the interior scenes which are reversed and shown to have a low contrast that gives the film a slight dreary feeling. The dead Acacia tree in the backyard is an intense piece of set design that the film centers around primarily. The tree effectively evokes the feel that these filmmakers want to instill within the audience. There is a bleak and depressing dead organism that for no apparent reason seems to be growing in the midst of community of houses that are all surrounded by the loveliest green floral arrangements. When we first meet the young Jin-sung and see his affinity for this tree, we know immediately that something is wrong with this child. An obsession with death or darkness seems apparent with the child, but is that really his motivation? The director also fills his film with several fast paced editing techniques and extreme zooms when audiences least expect them. This strange use of the zoom in particular gives the audience a slightly unnatural feeling and it shakes the movie up, despite what sort of conventional realities may surround our characters. This use of the quick pan and the zoom manages to give the movie a breezier pace it seems, and makes the movie feel like its rushing along with the speed of a trailer, despite it nearly cruising into the two hour territory.

The Conclusion
Although there are a number of things I really liked about Root of Evil, it does have a relatively weak twist during the third act. While the movie establishes itself as a potential “evil child” thriller, it quickly turns into something paranormal without warning. While the third act is filled with many questionable twists, the very last twist on the ending does somehow save the project to a degree, and adds a great deal of emotional tension to the movie. During the few moments where it seems that our movie is about to degenerate into a “killer tree” movie, however, I started to lose some interest. Still, if you can manage to look past this, I think you will find a really solid piece of horror. Released by Palisades Tartan, the DVD comes loaded with several behind the scenes special features as well as a series of trailers. I find that the film is absolutely worth tracking down and I give it a solid three out of five.