By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could not have expressed “Breakdown” any better and South Korean animator/director/storyteller Chang Hyung-yun illustrated it when he created Satellite Girl and Milk Cow. This work debuted in 2014, and its home video release by Shout! Factory / GKIDS for international audiences this month is long overdue. Not a lot of bonus material is included, and both the original and English dub was viewed. The latter presentation is decent, and it captures some nuances from the original work to make this work accessible for younger audiences to follow.
For animation aficionados, the technical quality is on par with many a cinematic product. It ranks right up there with many a Disney movie. For folklore enthusiasts, this work is puzzling at times and is not too hard to figure out. It draws on ancient shamanism to explain why witches and warlocks are prevalent in Korea. Less is said about those mortals who suddenly get transformed into anthropomorphic creatures. When they suffer heartache, a black fog descends upon them and they become shape-shifters. When Kyeong-cheon sees Eun-jin (his girlfriend) take an interest in another boy, he’s ready to call it quits than to ask her about it. As a result, whenever he is stressed and wallows in self-pity, he transforms into a milk cow. Alternative forms include zebras and donkeys.
At the same time, these folks become an instant target for bounty hunters—namely Mr. Oki—and the grim reaper—a living, breathing Incinerator.
As for how a machine can gain sentience, that’s a head-scratcher. KITSAT-1 is a forgotten satellite (it’s implied she’s made and sent up into space by some research facility on Earth) and she finds herself drawn to Kyeong’s music. The planetary orbiter decides to leave her station and go investigate. Just as she’s about to land, Merlin‘s magic changed her flight path so both she and the Incinerator are destroyed. By some strange quirk of fate, she survives and the wizard says much later, that he made her mortal. This bit of dialogue is inconsistent when he found the change a mystery when he first met her. Whether her shape-changing ability is a product of Cybertron or magic, neither is absolutely certain as she is able to fly around like Astroboy.
This work is a bizarre mix of science fiction, romance, fantasy and comedy. Merlin is hilarious as he contemplates life as a roll of toilet paper. He explains how he reincarnated this way and I just had to shake my head.
I have to ask what kind of acid Hyung-yun took when he decided on the imagery to use. This work is not too different from A Coffee Vending Machine and his Sword. The ideas of transposing humans with the machine are worth noting, and may well borrow from this country’s shamanistic origins. The cow is a revered figure in ancient times and to treat them like beasts of burden is disrespectful. Because Kyeong never confronted his previous love interest about what he saw, he was branded a cow(ard). He ran away instead of dealing with the situation.
Just who Mr. Oki is, however, Arsene Lupin the III he is not; this guy is out to steal livers (technically, a person’s soul) to sell to the black market. He believes humanity is a commodity and their essence can be traded like sending cows to other farmers. This individual also noted how relationships shift every day, and he feels it is his duty to dispense with the downtrodden.
The attachment developing between bovine and a living computer is adorable. The film suggests people should not give up hope, and I’m reminded of works like Macross: Love, Do You Remember. Just like this anime, music is important in reminding us who we are and where we came from. We should not give in to fear or hate. To not express yourself proper is just as equally dangerous.
Hyung-yun succeeds in giving a heartwarming tale. While it may look like a product for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim time slot because of a few surreal moments, this work is prime time material for all to appreciate. The family-friendly tone to teach self-awareness is what makes this work above all else. It’s like watching Studio Ghibli‘s Porco Rosso all over again. Another age-old adage includes never give up, never surrender. To do so means losing your connection with reality and nobody wants that, right?
3½ Stars out of 5