'Animal World': Film Review | Shanghai 2018

A risky gamble of a Chinese film that packs a rush for teens.

Michael Douglas plays a devilish fiend to Li Yifeng's honest young hero in a darkly metaphysical gambling fantasy that opened the Shanghai film festival.

If the contestants in The Hunger Games had been forced to kill each other by playing rock-paper-scissors instead of with bows and arrows, they might have earned a place at the gaming tables of Animal World (Dongwu shijie).

Drawing equally from the altered-reality universes of comic books and video games, Animal World is an exciting if disjointed mash of ideas and emotions. When it finally settles down to business on board a sinister ship called Destiny, the tale turns into a risk-it-all gambling fantasy that is surprisingly gripping. Opening the Shanghai International Film Festival with a punch, its florid special effects budget raises the stakes for Han Yan, the young director whose award-winning tragi-comedy Go Away Mr. Tumor was China’s Oscar hopeful in 2015. It will roll out in limited release in the U.K. at the end of June and could grab young fantasy audiences.

This is a rare case of a Chinese film adapted from a Japanese manga, and if positive box-office results are delivered, it could open floodgates of new material for idea-strapped Chinese producers. Animal World is actually the second big-screen adaptation of Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s comic, following a well-received 2009 Japanese version, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, and a 2011 sequel. The current film ends on a note that leaves the door open for a part two.

When Zheng Kaisi (Li Yifeng, a TV actor who won awards for his role in the film Mr. Six) is introduced as a disheartened floor entertainer in a clown suit at a gaming arcade, he seems to be suffering from a full-on superhero complex. Rapidly cross-cutting between the regular-guy Kaisi and his evil-looking clown persona, Han puts the audience on a puzzling trail. Is the protagonist human or superhuman?

In the first of several big action scenes, Kaisi morphs into a leering killer clown along the lines of the Joker, with two comically colored swords carried on his back. The people around him on a subway car transform into gooey animal-like monsters that spurt syrupy blood when hit by the clown’s martial arts attacks.

These are soon revealed as the violent fantasies of an impotent teenager, taking place in Kaisi’s head as he sits in a hospital ward visiting his mother, who has been in a coma for years. (Explanation comes later.)  He has become acquainted with young nurse Qing (Zhou Dongu of SoulMate) but hasn’t the money to pursue her. In fact, it’s she who loans him the cash to pay for his mom’s care.

The stakes are upped when Kaisi’s childhood pal Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), a real estate agent, proposes a sure-fire deal that will pay off his debts with the hospital. All he has to do is sell the family apartment. The contract is signed with a devilish-looking blond alien type, who of course cheats on the deal. This propels the story into another edge-of-the-seat action scene, a car and motorbike chase through city streets at night.

It’s another of the hero’s fantasies, however; in reality, he has been taken to meet the boss of bosses, a Mephistophelian Michael Douglas, who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. To pay off the interest on the astronomical debt he has incurred by signing the contract (close your eyes on logic here), he must participate in a game.

He wakes up and finds himself branded with a number, in the company of similar desperadoes who will play against him in a death match, set in the old-fashioned ballroom of a huge ship as it plows through the seas by night. Each contestant gets three stars and 12 cards depicting rock, scissors or paper. The rules of the game are complicated but are oft-repeated for slower members of the audience, and anyway, what counts is the rising tension as the hours go by. Anyone failing to meet the winning standard is relegated to a glass losers’ box, where they must either be redeemed by their true friends or become guinea pigs in unspeakable lab experiments.

Kaisi positively blooms in this macho death environment. It is mentioned that his late father was a math teacher, and with a cool head he forms a trio with the traitorous Li Jun and a newfound follower to amass a certain type of card. The audience is invited to follow along with his lightning logic as he locks horns with assorted cheats and baddies. Li rises to the occasion, every inch a hero who uses his real brains rather than his fantasy brawn to save his soul in a genuine surprise ending.

The whole offbeat cast has something to add to the proceedings. Though he doesn’t have that much screen time, Douglas reappears throughout the story at intervals, a satisfying puppet master who sets the rules and expects the worst of human nature. Speaking English to everyone else’s Mandarin, he’s humorous without being facetious and scary in his cynicism.

The toughest scenes are accompanied by Neal Acree’s driving music, at once epic and threatening. Max Da-Yung Wang’s lighting bestows a fantasy feeling over the sets and explodes into toxic colors with the special effects.

Production companies: Shanghai Ruyi Film & TV Production, Enlight Pictures, Shanghai Huolongguo Film & TV Production, Shanghai Tencent Pictures Cultural Diffusion, Jixiang Films
Cast: Li Yifeng, Michael Douglas, Zhou Dongyu, Cao Bingkun, Wang Ge
Director: Han Yan
Screenwriter: Han Yan, based on the Nobuyuki Fukumoto comic
Producer: Chen Zhixi
Director of photography: Max Da-Yung Wang
Production designer: Song Xiaojie
Editor: Yu Hongchao
Music: Neal Acree, Michael Tuller
Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival (opening film)
121 minutes