1 out of 5
Directed by: Han Yan
I imagine there was a script for Animal World floating around that was more focused on the math and gambling of its central concept – a high stakes rock/paper/scissors game in which the hand signals are represented by cards, with a goal to accrue a certain amount of wins and be out of said cards by the time the bell rings – and then someone came along, took a look at the title, and asked why there weren’t any animals in the movie. So a tiger in a cage was added above the gambling arena, but then that same someone, or perhaps a similar looking someone, wanted to know why a movie called Animal World – it’s gotta be some kind of amped up Jungle Book, right? – didn’t have any action or fantasy in it. No problem: we’ll insert some action fantasy sequences in which the lead character, Zheng Ka-isi (Li Yifeng) imagines himself as a ninja clown who slashes through anthropomorphs which spurt copious neon colored blood after being slashed by his dual katana, whilst the camera spins around in full computer-tracked glory. Nice! Also – those Marvel movies are pretty popular, so be sure to add an “it’s all connected” post credits stinger.
And… I guess it worked, as Animal World was a dang big Chinese hit. But it didn’t work for me.
Animal World is loosely based on a manga I haven’t read called Kaiji. Kaiji apparently does focus on the gambling – there’s no fucking ninja clown – and sounds pretty interesting. It’s added to my reading list. The series may also explore themes on the greed and addiction that drives such a sport, which this live action film tries to work in to justifying it’s title: that the boat onto which debt ridden passengers are waylaid, betting in a life-and-death game to offset their loans becomes an “animal world” driven by the desire for wealth. Money is the source of all evil, y’all. But besides a couple of mustache-twirling cheaters on the ship, even that easy moral can’t be supported, because we’re too busy with overly stylized explanations of the math behind Zheng’s card predictions (I’m sure the math is legit, but it doesn’t matter in the way the flick handles it: it’s all just candy coated visuals of cards and what not floating by on the screen) and dream sequences – triggered by stress – featuring clowns and blood and monsters. The movie starts out with one of those scenes, and while there’s a hackneyed attempt at explaining how those images are sourced to a traumatic event in Zheng’s past (during which he was blindfolded, and couldn’t see the images supposedly inspiring him, but whatever), these sequences serve zero purpose except to insert the aforementioned requisite action. You may be expecting, as I was, for some twist to hit at some point where Zheng Bourne Identity’s his way into actually becoming the ninja clown, but no – there’s truly no reason for this stuff. And the movie all takes place on that ship, and is all about rock/paper/scissors as shot by someone schooled in Transformers-style excess.
Li Yifeng gives the lead a lot of heart, making the movie watchable. With a less charismatic lead, that would not have been the case. Zhou Dongyu, playing the girl Zheng is essentially playing this game for, Liu Qing, is compelling in her few minutes on screen, but she’s 100% damseled by the setup; her role is a simplistic princess fetch quest type, and I’d also note that there are literally no women on the ship. Michael Douglas pops up as the guy running the ship, and he didn’t chew on the role: he’s definitely the bad guy, but he gives the character weight.
So there was opportunity here. And I’m bashing on the style, but if you want to give director Han Yan a video game to direct, I’m sure it’d look pretty badass. As a movie director, though, he was mismatched to the material, which was already mismatched to itself, turning a potentially interesting thriller into a bankrupt and boring mess of blockbuster baiting.