Up-and-coming attorney Tae Soo (Ahn Jae-hong) is given an opportunity for promotion within his firm – and all he has to do it take over the management of an ailing private zoo and bring it back to financial health within three months. There is only one major hurdle: creditors have re-possessed all of the animals.
Secret Zoo is a South Korean comedy directed and co-written by Son Jae-gon. It has an outstanding premise: to save the zoo from closure, Tae Soo and a band of mismatched employees must don elaborate animal costumes to convince visitors that the animals are still there. It is a fantastic concept for a movie comedy; possibly the best I saw from 2020.
Sadly the execution does not quite realise the potential. For one thing, Secret Zoo is a shade too long at 117 minutes, and a judicious edit down to 90 minutes or so would have done a world of good. The film lapses regularly into soft melodrama, a typical inclusion for commercial Korean cinema, but one that unfortunately dilutes the comedy and squanders a fair amount of potential. The finished film is certainly warm and entertaining, but delivers less than it promises. When a joke lands, it generally hits a good note, but it is simply spread over too long a film to properly satisfy an audience.
The film also makes some critical observations about animal welfare in zoos, but does not interrogate the issues quite well enough. It feels like an issue caught between too stools: not critical enough to really challenge the status quo, but also too critical to be swept away in the name of a good laugh. One wonders if differing cultural attitudes are at play – having never visited a Korean zoo it is difficult to tell where the country’s treatment and belief in animal rights is situated. For an Australian viewer, it is slightly too uncomfortable to ignore.
The characters are all broadly drawn but appealingly performed. Ahn Jae-hong has an appealing presence as the upbeat and naive Tae Soo. Jeon Yeo-bin plays Hae-kyeong, the resident veterinarian who has stayed behind to care the zoo’s one remaining animal (a sick polar bear). Kang So-ra is So-wan, a quiet young woman that has sunk her life savings into her boyfriend’s nearby convenience store. Kim Sung-oh plays Geon-wook, who stays behind due to an undeclared romantic obsession with So-wan. Park Young-gyu is Seo, the depressed founder of the zoo. It is a uniformly solid cast, and though they are left to play general stereotypes, they bounce off one another well and play the humour well.
Secret Zoo is an enjoyable, family-oriented comedy, but it never goes the extra mile and squanders its best elements as a result. While a commercial hit in South Korea, it seems a long shot to get much attention or theatrical play overseas. One for specific fans of the cast I suspect – or particularly enthused fans of South Korean comedy.