Animal World Review
You may think that Hollywood is running out of ideas after basing an entire studio comedy around the concept of tag, but it’s not much better in the East, as Chinese action-comedy Animal World is largely focussed on a high stakes group game of rock, paper scissors. Ignore the insanely misleading marketing campaign that made it look like China’s answer to Deadpool, depicting what appeared to be a tale of a vigilante clown laying waste to various monsters in a criminal underworld just out of view. Despite a plethora of surreal action sequences, all of which take place within the hyperactive mind of the protagonist, this is a considerably more self-contained affair that overcompensates for its limited number of settings by throwing in a crazy action sequence whenever audience interest starts to wain.
The bloated 130-minute runtime is keenly felt, especially as the majority of the film is spent playing rock, paper scissors - a fact that makes it perfectly understandable as to why the marketing team panicked and focussed entirely on the small handful of joyously bonkers fight sequences (that exist only in the lead character’s mind) instead. It’s irresponsible to judge the quality of a film based on how it was advertised, but it does speak to Animal World’s biggest problem: it promises a wild action-comedy caper that will explore an entire underworld, only to get quite literally stranded at sea by the half hour mark. From there, despite the threat of death, the conceit becomes so simplistic it has to rely on semi-regular surrealistic cutaways in order to maintain any sense of tension, let alone excitement.
Based on a Japanese manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, which was previously adapted into a live action film (Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler) in 2009, the story of Animal World is incredibly simple once you strip away the dream sequences. Li Yifeng plays Zheng Kaisi, a poverty stricken drifter low on cash to keep his mother in hospital, where she’s remained in a coma since his childhood - the nurse he’s romantically interested in, played by Zhou Dongu, has even started paying bills for him.
Then, one day, a school friend (Cao Bingkun) who has become a successful real estate agent tells him about a can’t miss financial proposition that will pay off his debts: selling off the family apartment. Kaisi reluctantly agrees, but when his friend loses all his money at a casino in Macau, the debt returns to him - and suddenly, he’s being imprisoned by Michael Douglas in the middle of the ocean, with the chance to pay off his debts via participating in a high stakes rock, paper, scissors tournament.
Director Han Yan understands how nonsensical the plot is, and embraces it wherever he can. Nevertheless, the film stumbles in its attempted juxtaposition of adolescent, Scott Pilgrim-style comic book fantasy sequences, and the supposed “realistic” situation at hand. It’s not that the comparatively grounded storyline is meant to be taken considerably seriously, especially with ridiculously convoluted plot devices such as an auto-translation earpiece that allows Michael Douglas to hold conversations with his predominantly Chinese prisoners.
But when compared to an opening fight against gross monsters on a train, to an OTT car chase that somehow climaxes with a CGI tracking shot of a fly buzzing through drains, it can’t help but make the comparative seriousness of the gambling look fairly trite by comparison. Neither of these elements makes any sense when it comes to conventional storytelling - but only one of them proves to be consistently exciting to watch, papering over the lack of plot logic with a sense of pure fun.
Prior to viewing, I was worried that the focus on hyper-stylised fantasy action wouldn’t sustain a two-plus hour feature. It turns out I was wrong, as I was left desperate for more of these moments, with the gambling story increasingly turning into a GCSE question on probability unfolding in front of my very eyes. It’s hard not to have flashbacks to torturous maths exams of the past as we are treated to numerous expository moments explaining the best tactical moves to play in rock, paper scissors. I kept expecting the film to pause so I could write a 150-word answer as to whether the character was correct in his assessments.