REVIEW: The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow (2014)

Il-ho is a defunct satellite originally sent into orbit to take photographs of the Korean peninsula. When she hears a young man named Kyung-chun singing down on Earth, she is compelled to land in Seoul – only to discover he has already been unwillingly transformed into a cow. With the help of a magic-using roll of toilet paper, she protects Kyung-chun from a monstrous humanoid incinerator as well as a sleazy criminal stealing the livers of animals.

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow is a 2014 Korean animation feature directed by Jang Hyung-yun. It is, compared to the usual animated fare, deeply strange. It is also weirdly charming in an off-kilter, surreal sort of a way. As a story it is a little weak, and meanders about the place, but its originality and bizarre set of characters still manage to take it a long way. Fans of anime looking for something more unusual than the usual Japanese fare just might appreciate its unique sense of style.

Jang has brought his film to life with a modest budget, and he exploits his limitations with a slightly scratchy and naive aesthetic. Compared to the glossy, visually stylish anime features from neighbouring Japan, his is a primitively composed work in which perspectives often look a little off and characters move in slightly awkward ways. Rather than a flaw, it gives the film an interesting look. There is a visible influence from popular anime in many of the designs, but that is a common feature in much of Korea’s contemporary animation.

The vocal performances are generally very strong, particularly Yoo Ah-in as the unfortunate, self-doubting Kyung-chun. Jung Yu-mi also does a good job with Il-ho’s bright, idiosyncratic personality and growing emotional range.

It is admittedly hard to pinpoint Jang’s desired audience. There is a child-friendly element to a satellite being transformed into a wide-eyed young woman and falling in love with a cow, but that romance occasionally treads into somewhat adult territory – a milking sequence is a bit of a jaw-dropper. The character work alternatively suggests an older and more sensitive viewership. To an extent the film’s different sides fight one another, and the result is a little dissatisfaction for either audience. Jang’s tendency to end scenes with slow fade-outs also begin to hold the narrative back. This is, sadly, a film that drags as it goes.

The overall imagination, however, is superb: a very human-like pet dog, magical paper suits that let a cow masquerade as a human, regular sight gags about Il-ho’s rocket-propelled arms, and a powerful wizard trapped in the form of a roll of toilet paper with arms and legs. The film itself has its ups and downs, but the ideas that under-pin it are an absolute delight. There is a strong sense of emotion driving things, and despite its faults the film’s conclusion cannot help but have a powerful effect.

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