Written and directed by: Son Jae-gon
The last time I saw a Korean film it was a certain elaborate, quasi-horror piece about a family of tricksters taking a stab at class society. Secret Zoo is no Parasite. It is a simpler, less emotionally troubling work. But the comparison is an interesting one to keep in mind. Secret Zoo is also a story of tricksters; also a story of a family (of sorts). And most importantly, it also makes jabs at the capitalist class.
Secret Zoo’s critical politics start subtley enough. We are introduced to protagonist Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-Hong) an up-and-coming corporate lawyer. While he has the degree and wears the suit, he is in a struggle to attain job security. He also doesn’t quite catch on to the full character of corporate culture, as evidenced, for instance, when he doesn’t figure out how to register his office card key.
While Hollywood lawyers are often seen defending alleged-criminals in court rooms, Tae-soo’s position is so corporate, it barely seems lawyer-ish at all. His first big assignment is essentially to be a business manager. One of the firm’s corporate clients has bought a struggling zoo, and Tae-soo is essentially sent in to save it.
It is from here that the film takes on its quirks. The zoo has sold most of its animals (save for meerkats, a racoon, and a mentally-ill polar bear that can’t be displayed). Caught between his careerist-focus on impressing his boss, and a non-careerist amicability, Tae-soo convinces the zoo’s mild mannered staff to take on an interesting scheme to save their business.
Secret Zoo is undoubtedly at its strongest when Tae-soo’s scheme is underway, and all kinds of physical comedy ensues. Messaging is also a key part of the film. A critique of zoos is worked in, even as the work is sympathetic to zookeepers.
More prominent, however, is the film’s cynical view of corporate culture. The critique works best if one asks questions about Tae-soo’s motives. The amorality of corporate law is made obvious from the film’s start, so why would someone like Tae-Soo get into it in the first place? The answer is that our society has contradictory values: on the one hand we promote standing up for the “little guy”: on the other hand we value career ascendancy in capitalist markets. This contradiction produces real-life Tae-soo’s: mild-mannered and thoughtful people who become mundanely-cutthroat in the context of their employment.
Secret Zoo doesn’t appear poised to make it to North American markets. Save for its theatrical and modest-budget-antics, the film doesn’t differ that much from American, mainstream feel good comedies. One of its subtle problems is how Tae-soo’s character arc is presented. When the realities of his corporate employment become apparent, Tae-soo is called out as if this is personally his fault. As a result, the film follows the emotional beat of a standard-young-man-learns-his-lesson comedy, rather than the young-man-challenges capitalism story that it could be. For me this was not just a shortcoming, but a point of emotional disconnection, as the story lost its unique voice. Perhaps you’ll feel the same way and won’t quite be happy with the film’s trajectory. But don’t let me be a downer. The “zoo” itself is absolutely worth the visit.