Tokyo Film Review: ‘Motel Acacia’

Peter Debruge

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Motel Acacia” takes place in America, but not any version of America that Americans will recognize. “Re-elect Roberts!” announces a garish campaign billboard bearing the face of a generic white politician. “We are great again!” Well, it’s easy to guess who that’s referring to and to extrapolate what alternate reality “Motel Acacia” has in mind. This is America as seen from abroad, America as a scary place where ugly white racists don’t just build walls to keep undocumented aliens out; they sacrifice oblivious immigrants to a menacing tree demon.

A what? Tree demons aren’t really a thing in the United States, but they’re a fertile part of Filipino folklore, and given that “Motel Acacia” is actually an Asian co-production from Philippines-based director Bradley Liew (“Singing in Graveyards”), that explains how such a monster would find its way into a movie set in the Northern U.S. Liew (who fleshed out the idea with co-writer Bianca Balbuena) interprets the message America has been sending to the world at large — basically, “Stay away, you’re not wanted here!” — in the most aggressive way possible, and the results are every bit as freaky as one might hope, thanks to a skilled mix of creepy locations, mysterious characters and very imaginative creature effects.

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Considering how the “Hostel” movies traded on American tourists’ fears of Eastern Europe, the strategy should hardly seem foreign to American audiences. It’s just disturbing to see it flipped back against us — and perhaps inadvertently hilarious in the process, when the unscrupulous American bad guy turns out to be played by Belgian actor Jan Bijvoet (the creepy house guest in “Borgman”), who speaks English with a thick accent and skips past the bit of the plot meant to explain that he sired a child by a Filipino woman during a trip abroad many years earlier.

Now, the time has come for grown son JC (Filipino actor JC Santos, who looks nothing like “Dad”) to take over the family business, which involves running an ominous bunker-like facility where foreigners hide out en route to Canada. The customers — who are treated like human cargo — pay an elaborate sum in exchange for food, lodging and fake papers. At least, that’s the arrangement they think they’re getting, although JC’s father has another deal worked out with the town council (another foreign concept that doesn’t entirely translate to America), which expects him to dispose of the motel’s “illegal” guests.

Early on, JC serves as the audience’s proxy, as oblivious to the venue’s real purpose as we are. He watches in mounting horror as Dad humiliates a Filipino immigrant (Perry Dizon), forcing him to strip and offering him two choices: Either he can fend for himself in the freezing cold outside, or he can accept the accommodations they have to offer. The “motel” (a strange word) amounts to a series of icy, cell-like concrete rooms, bare except for a Gothic wrought-iron bed in the center. In lieu of a mattress is a sort of viscous white membrane, beneath which something with tentacles (or branches) thrashes about hungrily. When someone is foolish enough to climb in, the sheets stick to his skin, ever so gradually swallowing him alive.

Whether or not tree demons — also known as “Kapres” — mean anything to you now, they may well inhabit your nightmares after witnessing the one “Motel Acacia” conjures here. Needless to say, JC flips out when he realizes what the family business entails. He wants no part in killing the Filipinos who pay them for safe haven, and rebels against his father, who exits the film early — but not before issuing an important warning: “Whatever you do, no matter what, never bring a woman into this room.”

Cut to Angeli (Agot Isidro), the Filipina who helps run the operation. Might as well place your bets now on how long before she’ll meet the tree demon. She’s guiding three more unsuspecting Filipinos (Nicholas Saputra, Vithaya Pansringarm and Bront Palarae) to their arboreal demise, while JC returns with a white couple (Talia Zucker and Will Jaymes), who will serve to demonstrate how the bed reacts differently to men and women. Hint: It devours the dudes and impregnates the ladies, doing both every bit as graphically as Hollywood’s “Alien” franchise.

Once Bijvoet disappears, Santos and Isidro prove compelling leads, while the others (different degrees of bad actors all) do their B-movie best to seem sweaty and anxious while the talented effects team terrifies us with vivid practical gimmicks, ranging from elaborate puppetry to ever-present effluvia. Though it delivers on the suspense level, “Motel Acacia” really ought to have spent a bit more time figuring out what it was trying to say about America — that dimension remains a bit too abstract, ultimately failing to explain why a Filipino demon is doing the country’s dirty work. Still, the execution is slick enough to make it a hit in Asian markets, while the crazy tree monster packs enough cult potential to merit a waiver of inadmissibility at the U.S. border.

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