The New York Asian Film Festival ran from August 28 to September 12. For more details, click here.
It is a blessing that we got an NYAFF at all this year, but with that comes some inevitable disappointments. And one of the big ones is that I didn’t have the opportunity to see director Son Jae-gons’ Secret Zoo with a packed audience; it is exactly the sort of highly entertaining mainstream comedy that you want to see with a crowd, getting carried away on the gales of mass laughter that its high concept hi-jinks would inevitably incur. It just plays, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to enjoy here.
Kang Tae-soo is an aspiring lawyer who has only made it so far as a kind of errand boy for his firm. After throwing himself in the path of some unruly anti-corporate protesters, Tae-soo gets noticed by the boss Mr. Hwang, who gifts him with the opportunity of a lifetime: if he can turn around one of their properties, a struggling zoo, in 90 days, then he will immediately be promoted to full lawyer.
Tae-soo jumps at the chance, and the expected hilarity ensues.
Well, after a lot of corporate talk that you don’t have to fully understand, but that they go into thorough detail about anyway. One of the curiously charming things about mainstream South Korean genre pieces, at least in my experience, is their utter willingness, bordering on glee, to dive into the minutia of their financial/legal/political dealings whereas American filmmakers would just gloss over it to get to the good stuff.
Rest assured, if you have questions about the logistical structuring of the deal between Mr. Hwang and clients the Rakwon Corporation seeking to buy the zoo, all your questions will be thoroughly explicated.
Upon arrival at Dongsan Park Zoo, Te-soo discovers that the dire financial straits have led to the selling off of almost all the animals, just to keep the doors open and the staff has been reduced to a mere four employees: the phone addicted Hye-kung; shy yet impulsive Gun-wook, harboring a secret but patently obvious crush on Hye-kung; Dr. Han, the dedicated and serious minded staff veterinarian; and Director Seo, the former manager whose sole topic of conversation is how badly he failed in his duties.
With 90 days, no money, and the bureaucracy surrounding animal acquisition ensuring that no new animals will be available to them before their time is up, this ragtag team will have to resort to desperate measures to turn the zoo around.
Which is to say, if they can’t buy the animals… they will become the animals.
Through costumes, I mean. Not like, surgery or anything. This isn’t Tusk. Ew.
As it happens, Secret Zoo is based on a webtoon called I Don’t Bully You, by an artist named Hun. It would be interesting to see how faithful an adaptation this is, because one of the fascinating things about the film is how grounded it feels, when you imagine how over-the-top things could have been. Perhaps it matches the webtoon in its measured sense of pace; at two hours it’s longer than most comedies, but unlike most comedies above 90 minutes, which often feel bloated and indulgent, the extra time is used judiciously, to ground the characters and the admittedly absurd premise. The film takes a fair amount of time getting to said premise, but it’s time well-spent; Jae-gon, along with co-writers Lee Yong-jae and Kim Dae-woo, have designed their story and its surprises and pleasures with great style and wit. They’re meticulous in their setups, which makes the payoffs all the sweeter.
That middle act is the highlight of the film, as Tae-soo orchestrates his employees, disguised as a sloth, polar bear, gorilla, and lion in a madcap scheme to trick ticket buyers into thinking they’re getting an authentic zoo experience. And here, of course, is where a decent review must break down, as there’s nothing worse than having funny gags described to you. The joy in comedy is in the discovery, and for anyone even remotely curious about the film I wouldn’t dream of giving away any of the jokes. Suffice it to say that one of the most impressive things here is the sheer variety of gags that the filmmakers come up with in exploiting their premise. The entire middle act is just gag after gag and complication after complication, and the hit to miss ratio is shockingly high.
The third act isn’t quite as strong, though there are still many laughs to be had, but as these things go it has the benefit of paying off much of the setups from the first two acts. The twists that happen feel unexpected yet natural based on what we know about the characters and everything we’ve seen so far, so even when the laughs aren’t quite as fast and furious they’ve accrued more than enough goodwill to get us over the slowdown in laughs. And capping it off with a satisfying, feel good ending that doesn’t feel pandering or overly contrived.
Throughout it all, our core cast holds the center with their well-honed comic charms. It’s an extremely solid ensemble, working together and thankfully not trying to one up each other (though I’d be lying if I said that Park Yeong-gyu’s deadpan performance as Director Seo didn’t crack me up beyond all reason, even when he wasn’t actually doing much of anything at all).
As luck would have it, Secret Zoo was the final movie I watched for the Festival, and in a way it feels like the perfect choice, down to the gorgeous autumnal photography that grounded the usual midsummer festival in its delayed fall surroundings. As a piece of entertainment, it seems almost custom made to have you leaving a theater on a cloud of enjoyment. To be sure that means it’s a movie that begs to be seen with as large a crowd as possible, but even just sitting in front of a computer all by myself, it roused plenty of laughs.