Secret Zoo (Haechijianha)

Korea (2020) Dir. Son Jae-Gon

If it is all for a good cause then a little deception can be forgiven right? Unfortunately, in the corporate world when money talks and the powerful talk louder, there is no such thing as a good cause when there is a profit to be made, and if the little people get trampled on then c’est la vie.

Kang Tae-Soo (Ahn Jae-Hong) is an attorney-at-law looking for a permanent position at the renowned JH law firm but is stuck doing menial temp work. As the firm negotiates with top tier company Rakwon which is looking to improve its current shady reputation, CEO Hwang (Park Hyuk-Kwon) needs to impress his client Min Chae-Ryung (Han Ye-Ri) with a distraction, and has Tae-Soo head the project in exchange for a full-time job.

Dongsan Zoo has gone into bankruptcy and Hwang wants to buy it for peanuts then sell it off to Rakwon at a profit, giving Tae-Soo three months to turn its fortunes around. When Tae-Soo arrives at the zoo he finds a sight problem – most of the animals have been reclaimed due to the debt, leaving him with nothing. Needing a quick solution, Tae-Soo and the few remaining staff dress in animal costumes to fool the public.

Yes, this is a cute comedy but Secret Zoo is also a satire on the current fixation with the need for spectacle and our readiness to believe all that we see. Corporate ruthlessness and taking the animal kingdom for granted are also key themes providing the gravity but the tone overall is kept light enough, even with the heavy handed messaging.

Returning to filmmaking after a decade’s absence, Son Jae-Gon adapts the webtoon Haechijiana by the mononymous Hun. The title Secret Zoo is a little misleading as the zoo itself isn’t a secret, rather it has a secret; the original title translates as I Don’t Bully You which is just as confusing unless it pertains to something not covered here.

The deal with the zoo comes after a lengthy set up explaining the position Rakwon is in, whilst JH Law is subject to protests for exploiting workers and propagating nepotism by supporting Rakwon. This sets up Tae-Soo as the nice but blindly ambitious minion about to go on a moral journey. Whilst Tae-Soo doesn’t suspect anything, we can tell Hwang is up to no good but for the moment the idea is fun enough.

Except even Hwang probably didn’t figure in the zoo’s debts meaning the animals would be taken away. All that is left when Tae-Soo arrives are a few birds, a racoon, and a stressed out polar bear named Black Nose, with a legal restriction preventing the purchasing of new animals. Also depleted is the zoo staff roster, with Director Seo (Park Young-Gyu), vet Han So-Won (Kang So-Ra), and keepers Kim Gun-Wook (Kim Sung-Oh) and Kim Hey-Kyung (Jeon Yeo-Bin) the only ones left.

So-Won is closest to Black Nose, having met him as a child and becoming a vet to look after him, but he has lately suffered from stress from being a public attraction. But this is the least of Tae-Soo’s worries as even Black Nose won’t be enough to bring the punters back and after drunkenly mistaking a stuffed tiger for the real thing and finding animal mascot suits in storage, Tae-Soo has his light bulb moment.

He meets with former film SFX man Mr. Ko (Kim Ki-Cheon) to build the suits, requesting a lion, gorilla, polar bear, sloth, and giraffe, the latter only half finished. Now, if you’re thinking “but sloths are small” this point was raised but Tae-Soo reasons that as long as Hye-Kyung remains at a distance, visitors won’t notice they have a five-foot tall sloth.

As you have probably suspected, the bulk of the comedy comes from the antics of the staff as they perform as convincingly as they can as the animals, from the training sessions to them breaking character whilst still in the suits. It’s basic but all good fun. One great moment sees Gun-Wook attack Hye-Kyung’s duplicitous boyfriend Sung-Min (Jang Seung-Jo) at his convenience store in the gorilla costume!

Fortunately, things do pick up when Tae-Soo, now in the polar bear suit, drinks from a cola bottle thrown at him and is seen by a young couple who film him, upload it to social media and suddenly the zoo has a viral hit on their hands. But, what goes up must come down and Tae-Soo is stunned when Hwang drops a major bombshell about the future of the zoo.

What is interesting is that despite the passion and care in looking after the animals, the ending seems to suggest a wry anti-captivity stance in the film’s subtext, a point raised on a couple of occasions when discussing Black Nose’s issue. I suppose the idea that saving a zoo to realise animals deserve the same considerations as humans is meant to be ironic but at who’s expense? Especially as Black Nose is in fact a CGI creation.

Putting this aside, I am sure the cast had fun pretending to be animals though I suspect their suffering was the same as their characters, but the comedy value is rewarding enough. Outside of this, a palpable chemistry is created amongst the zoo team to make this work, the unconfirmed possible romance between Tae-Soo and So-Won is however less convincing, partially down to the scripting, partly from Ahn Jae-Hong and Kang So-Ra having no discernible sizzle with each other.

Secret Zoo will likely be taken as a light comedy and a well-meaning paean to our furry friends, whilst the legal machinations serve to have a viable antagonist to hate when we should all really be more considerate about caged animals. By saving the proselytizing to the end, Son Jae-Gon might have ended on damp note for some but has done enough to hold our attention this far we at least ponder his message – and it isn’t polar bears drink cola…

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