Tribeca Review: Postcards from the Zoo


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Sometimes I’ll watch a movie and be really taken by what it could have been rather than what it wound up being. In the review for Headshot (another Tribeca film), I mentioned how I liked the concept of a hitman seeing the world upside down, but I’d rather watch the big, dumb remake that does something interesting with that visual idea rather than the dour, meditative, Buddhist rumination I wound up seeing.

With Postcards from the Zoo, you have giraffe information, street magicians, odd cowboy and Indian obsessions, knife throwing, snake oil selling, and homeless people living in the zoo. It all sticks together for a while, but as the film moves forward, it loses focus. It sacrifices its compelling oddness for supposed profundity, but it mistakes profundity for slowness. At its pace and given how the story unfolds, it’s about 25 minutes too long (the film is only 96 minutes).

Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun binatang)
Director: Edwin
Rating: NR
Country: Indonesia/China/Germany/Hong Kong

Part of the issue with Postcards from the Zoo is that is that it feels like a sketch. You have all these elements that come together and provide some form of enchantment. It’s as if the individual elements function well as their own discrete elements, but for some reason it just doesn’t cohere in the film. This might be because Postcards from the Zoo isn’t telling its compelling tale in the most compelling way.

Lana (Ladya Cheryl) is lost in the zoo as a child and grows up there with the animals, the workers, and the homeless people. She even goes through the taxonomy of the people who occupy the zoo. It goes along with the random title cards describing animals in captivity and their reintroduction to the wold, a stylistic conceit that emphasizes the events on screen but is sort of just there. Lana’s a fount of knowledge when it comes to giraffes because she identifies with the solitude of the lone giraffe in the zoo.

She goes a little journey, we see her life change a bit, and that’s really all the film can manage. It’s The Wizard of Oz without the same sense of magic or wonder, and with fewer friends. Instead we get drudgery and naïveté. There’s just something about some movies where naïveté is the norm, and it bugs me.

So many movies hinge on inexplicable naïveté. Adults have all the knowledge of meek little children, old people have all the wits of dumb kids, and so on. Given, Lana was raised at the zoo (a phrase just as cool as “grew up in the circus”), but she seems too childlike. She meets a cowboy who does street magic and they instantly falls in love. She’s mesmerized like she’s just been staring at a cobra. The cowboy brings her out into the world and dresses her up like a little Indian girl. She’s forced to do things she doesn’t necessarily want to. But why is this character so willfully naïve? Is the zoo so magical and hermetically innocent that she never saw people being grifted or exploited?

There’s a lot of mannered quirk in Postcards from the Zoo, and while it appealed to me at first, it’s all just a game of dress-up by the end. That said, the cow bus in the movie is incredibly cool. It’s not on the same level of the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro, but it’s still a fascinating vehicle.

For the most part, the movie feels like a game of dress up. It’s the way kids wear glasses and think they’re smart — you put on a cowboy hat and do magic and you think the film has instant enchantment. Real magic on film is usually unadorned, or if the film has a kind of outfit on, the outfit is an essential reflection of what the movie is. It’s not accessories, it’s essential.

The idea of postcards comes into play as the film slowly draws to a close. We see Lana in various scenes, her figure dominated by the goings on around her. She’s lost, she’s tiny, and the film wanders and lingers over this. I get it, and even though the images are somewhat pretty — it’s a bit like Where’s Waldo at a certain point, though a bit easier given Lana’s distinct posture — they do wear out their welcome due to repetition.

If Postcards from the Zoo just stayed at the zoo, it could have been something more magical, much stranger, and maybe more genuine. The dynamic of the zookeepers, the visitors, and the homeless squatters is a fascinating notion to explore. The same goes for giraffes. Lana loves them, but she seems to forget about them outside of the zoo except for a few facts here and there. Edwin seems to forget about his title cards. This might be what happens when you play fast and loose with the tools of enchantment.

But hey, at least there’s cow bus.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.