Secret Zoo (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): These ‘animals’ won’t hurt you…

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When I watched the trailer of South Korean comedy film “Secret Zoo”, I seriously wondered whether its outrageous comic premise could work on the big screen. Several moments glimpsed from the trailer seemed so silly and unrealistic to me that I had considerable reservation on the success of the movie, but, what do you know, it turns out that the movie somehow finds a witty, smart way to amuse and entertain us a lot as pushing the premise as much as it can along with its likable main characters, and I have to tell you that I frequently chuckled and laughed along with other audiences around me during last evening.

The movie opens with another hard day for Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-hong), who has worked as an intern in some prominent (and notorious) law firm. Tae-soo has aspired for promotion for a long time, but he only finds himself stuck with menial tasks, and then, after he manages to draw some attention from the head of the law firm, he is assigned to handling a failing zoo recently acquired by a certain client company of his law firm.

Because he is promised that he will be promoted if he runs the zoo well enough to be sold at high price later, Tae-soo is quite determined to accomplish his task within three months as demanded, but then he belatedly comes to realize how bad the situation is really in the zoo. When he arrives in the zoo as its new director, many animals have already been sold off and then taken away from the zoo, and the remaining animals in the zoo including a very disturbed polar bear are not that useful at all for attracting visitors.

And the few remaining staff members in the zoo are not so cooperative to Tae-soo right from his first day. While the former director, played by Park Young-gyu, is still bitter and depressed about his inadvertent mismanagement of the zoo, So-won (Kang So-ra), the veterinarian of the zoo, is not very cordial to Tae-soo, and two other employees, Keon-wook (Kim Sung-oh) and Hae-kyeong (Jeon Yeo-bin), are not particularly enthusiastic about whatever Tae-soo is going to propose for saving their zoo.

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Realizing how difficult the circumstance is many aspects, Tae-soo becomes more desperate and frustrated, but then, after one minor comic incident, he gets an idea which sounds pretty preposterous to say the least but seems worthwhile to be tried. He suggests to his employees that they should disguise themselves as several animals popular enough to attract visitors, and his employees reluctantly agree to join this outrageous scheme because it looks like the only option for them to save their zoo and then bring back those animals taken away from them.

For the success of his scheme, Tae-soo prepares as much as he can. First, he and his employees visit a certain professional guy who can provide them very realistic animal suits, and then we get some good laughs as our main characters clumsily test their animal suits after deciding which animal role they are going to play respectively. Because their animal suits are not entirely perfect, they must take some caution while keeping enough distance between them and visitors, and there is a hilarious moment when Tae-soo tries to determine the ideal distance between his employees and visitors.

When the zoo is finally opened again to visitors, the first days are not that successful even though Tae-soo’s employees manage to maintain their respective disguises in front of visitors, but then there comes a breakthrough moment which instantly elicited big, riotous laughs from me and other audiences. Once they come to discern how they can draw far more visitors, Tae-soo and his employees go all the way with their ongoing disguise, and the movie cheerfully goes along with that as developing a series of hysterically funny moments including the sequence involved with Hae-kyeong’s lousy ex-boyfriend.

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Of course, Tae-soo gradually comes to care about the zoo and his employees as he and his employees work really hard together for saving the zoo, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that he becomes quite conflicted after belatedly learning what will soon happen to the zoo. The mood accordingly becomes a bit more serious and melodramatic during the last act as expected, but the movie fortunately maintains its comic momentum while also paying some attention to animal rights, and you may forgive several notable flaws in the film including its rather contrived feel-good finale.

The main cast members of the movie give colorful comic performances to be enjoyed. Ahn Jae-hong, who previously drew my attention via his breakthrough turn in “The King of Jokgu” (2013), demonstrates his considerable comic talent again, and he is also supported well by several other main cast members including Kang So-ra, Park Young-gyu, Kim Sung-oh, Jeon Yeo-bin, and Park Hyuk-kwon, who is odious enough to make you laugh and cheer during a certain key scene where his character unwittingly gets himself into an intense situation way over his head.

“Secret Zoo” is directed by Son Jae-gon, who has somehow been dormant after giving us “Villain & Widow” (2010) around 10 years ago but, as shown from the movie, has lost none of his skills for comedy yet. It is still January, but I think I will still remember those numerous funny moments in the film at the end of this year, and I hope the movie will succeed at the local box office enough to give some necessary boost to Son’s career.

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