Alienoid (외계+인 1부, Choi Dong-hoon, 2022)

According to the strangely warmhearted AI robot at the centre of Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid (외계+인 1부), the universe is already finished, destined only to tear itself apart in destructive instability. According to him, his society evolved, became compassionate and forgiving, yet like many others sought to avoid a problem it did not want to deal with in exiling its most dangerous prisoners to the minds of oblivious Earthlings who apparently rarely realise they’re sharing body and soul with an alien killing machine until that is one decides to escape. 

Thunder (Kim Dae-myung), an AI unit accompanying the sullen Guard (Kim Woo-bin) who is also a kind of guardian, paints the aliens as dangerous mutants who live only for violence yet it might be worth considering that their rebellion may be justified as members of an oppressed minority apparently considered harmful to mainstream society were it not for the fact their plan involves poisoning the Earth’s atmosphere to free their brethren while suffocating humanity in the process. Guard is fond of saying that he cares nothing for humans and does not involve himself in human affairs, yet it’s obvious that as much as his duty is to ensure the aliens stay captive he feels a responsibility to protect humanity, coming to care for an infant child Thunder spirited away in compassion after its mother died when the alien hosted inside her tried to escape. 

There is something a little curious in the fact these alien beings have chosen to live in what is our present day when according to them time is not linear but happening all at once and they appear to have the ability to travel through it at will, even stashing mutant criminals back in the 14th century where a Taoist dosa magician, “The Marvellous Muruk” (Ryu Jun-yeol) is on the hunt for the Divine Blade and a young woman who “shoots thunder” (Kim Tae-ri). Alien technology may seem like magic even if rooted in “science”, but feudal Korea is a place of majestic fantasy in which wizardry is apparently very real to the extent that a pair of powerful sorcerers tour the land hawking magical supplies such as random sutra stickers and mirrors that enlarge whatever passes through them to mysteriously masked warrior monks. Yet as we can see the girl who shoots thunder is merely welding a pistol, a kind of halfway house of technology which seems like strange magic to the people of Goryeo but nothing more than a child’s toy to the laser-wielding robotic aliens. 

In any case, Choi eventually connects these two worlds bridged by temporal conspiracy as if implying that the future’s salvation lies only in the past. Guard is forced to reflect that their strange act of colonial imperialism in secretly implanting alien prisoners in human minds may have been misguided when challenged by his plucky little girl (Choi Yu-ri) who has already realised there’s something a little different about her distant dad while the fact she’s effectively being raised by two men passes as incidental detail even as the Guard is stalked by her best friend’s apparently smitten aunt (Lee Honey). 

This being the first instalment in a two part film, there is a notable lack of resolution in its closing moments though Choi excels in world building running from hard sci-fi to feudalistic fantasy imbued with the strange magic of technology and underpinned by an interrogation humanity as the heroes battle through time looking for a way to repair an “unstable” world ruled by greed and violence and largely find it in each other. While the chief thrill may come from the incongruity of a young woman firing a pistol in the age of the crossbow (not to mention blasting her way out of a coffin), Choi packs in a series of innovative action sequences shot with a knowing irony as Muruk faces off against the masked monks in the past while the Guard and Thunder try their best to keep the aliens at bay with their high tech weaponry, shooting electric pulses from their palms and dodging lasers but still making a last ditch attempt by leaping at the enemy spaceship and trying to stab it in the heart. Whether this disordered world can be stabilised through a moment of cosmic connection will have to wait for part two, but this opening instalment at least is quite literally a charming affair.


Alienoid is in US cinemas from Aug. 26 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Secret Zoo (해치지않아, Son Jae-gon, 2020)

A corporate stooge begins to reassess his life choices in Son Jae-gon’s capitalist satire, Secret Zoo (해치지않아, Haechijianha). As someone belatedly points out, no matter how nice you make the enclosure, you can’t get away from the fact you’re in jail and aspiring lawyer Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-hong) might have to admit that he’s no more free than the animals he’s sent to oversee (or not, as we’ll find out) when he’s randomly sent to take over a failed wildlife park at the behest of his shady boss. 

Currently a temp working out his probation at top three legal firm JH Law, Tae-soo is desperate to be taken on as a full-time employee but as he explains to his sister who wants to sue some thugs bullying her son, that largely means he’s basically just an errand boy taking care of the unreasonable demands of their incarcerated clients who are in the main chaebol sons accused of fraud and embezzlement. JH Law is under siege from protestors angry at their role in perpetuating chaebol influence and siding with large conglomerates to frustrate workers’ rights and enable exploitative working practices. Yet it’s not squeamishness that he’s wound up working for such an awful company that has Tae-soo too embarrassed to attend the reunion for the “third rate” uni he graduated from, but shame that he is only a temp not a full-time employee. That’s part of the reason he instantly accepts a strange offer from his boss to head up Dongsan Park with the promise that he’ll be taken on as a regular employee in Mergers and Acquisitions if he can turn it around in three months. 

When he arrives, however, Tae-soo gets something of a shock. Most of the park’s most valuable animals have already been seized by its creditors, and international safeguards regarding the trafficking of live animals ensure that he cannot simply buy more within the three month time limit. After being surprised by a stuffed tiger while drunk after the welcome party and catching sight of some photos from a mascot day Tae-soo has a bright idea. They’ll simply have hyperrealistic costumes made and sit in the enclosures themselves keeping far enough away that the customers hopefully won’t know the difference. After all, when someone tells you’re visiting a zoo it probably doesn’t occur to you to question whether the animals are “real”.

Secret Zoo, or more accurately a zoo with a secret, is on one level a mild satire on public perception and fake news. You hear the word zoo and have a set of expectations. Unless something happens to convince you otherwise, your brain naturally smoothes over any minor issues you might have because it would be ridiculous for someone to “fake” a zoo. Despite the evidence of his eyes, the only thing the corporate stooge sent to inspect finds suspicious is the animals’ “funny” names which all end in the same syllable. The zoo becomes an unexpected viral phenomenon when Tae-soo, wearing the polar bear suit, is snapped drinking Coca-Cola just like the advert but even then no one questions the idea that he’s not a real polar bear, or that it’s perhaps not ethical for a polar bear to be drinking Coca-Cola in the first place or for guests to be throwing objects into the enclosures and especially not with the intention of harming the animals. 

Only conflicted doctor So-won (Kang So-ra) questions the zoo ideology, pointing out that however nice they make the enclosures it’s still a prison for animals that they are in essence exploiting. Secret Zoo is at pains to make a direct comparison between Tae-soo caught in the corporate cage of modern-day capitalism and the animals he’s impersonating as prisoners of the world in which they live. Tae-soo’s shady boss is, as might be expected, essentially corrupt. As Tae-soo begins to figure out, if this job were important he wouldn’t be doing it, he’s been sent because he’s desperate and expendable while his boss snidely remarks that it’s not a job to be done by someone “brought up soft” hinting at the class snobbery that further oppresses him as a “weed” coming up from a “third class” university. 

So desperate to achieve conventional success by becoming a member of the elitist club, Tae-soo doesn’t really question what it takes to get there until bonding with the employees and becoming invested in the idea of saving the zoo only to discover that his shady boss never really meant to “save” it anyway. Yet the only solution on offer is it seems merely a nicer cage which in power rests firmly with the same corrupt chaebols only now persuaded that it’s in their interest to be more socially responsible as a means of improving their personal brand which of course merely enables them to continue their exploitative business practices even if implying that Tae-soo too has a modicum of power in the ability to manipulate them. Black Nose, the polar bear driven mad by confinement, cannot be returned to the wild but regains his “freedom” in a polar bear sanctuary in frosty Canada, Dr. So-won too freeing herself of her problematic need to protect him by keeping him close. Tae-soo getting a dose of his own medicine in being observed by a young couple who press him for a selfie as the director of that “fake zoo” seems to have gained a little more awareness of what it’s like to live in the enclosure of an inherently corrupt social system akin to corporate feudalism but like Black Nose has perhaps at least improved the quality of his captivity. 


International trailer (English subtitles)