Zheng Kaisi (Li Yifeng) is a disaffected young man who works a dead-end job at a gaming arcade. His mother lies in a coma in a nearby hospital, the bills for which cost more money than he can afford. His only asset is the apartment left to him by his mysteriously disappeared father. When his best friend Li Jun (Cao Bingkun) comes to him with a scheme to earn back all of his debts, a desperate Kaisi sees it as the perfect opportunity to get his life back on top. Then Li Jun disappears while running for his life, and the people who took Li Jun come for Kaisi as well.
Animal World is a glossy, big-budget Chinese blockbuster directed by Han Yan, whose previous film Go Away Mr Tumor was China’s 2015 submission for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar. It is also an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga, Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s Ultimate Survivor Kaiji. The manga, which comprises almost 70 volumes to date, has already been adapted into a feature film in Japan. That film was Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, a 2009 hit directed by Toya Sato and starring Tetsuya Fujiwara. Animal World adapts the same initial story arc, dropping some story elements and adding its own in return. All in all, it seems a stronger film. At the same time it is a much stranger one.
Han brings a phenomenal visual eye to the film, which is deliberately shot with a surfeit of colour and a frantic sense of motion. Realism is seated firmly in the back of the car as the story explodes with visual trickery, bravura acts of digitally-enhanced photography, and vivid fantasy sequences. It is the fantasy element that jumps out the most, with much the film’s publicity emphasising Kaisi’s double life as a murderous clown vigilante. It is all in his head, representing his internal rage in an eye-catching way but never fully becoming an integrated part of the overall film. It does get an explanation, but it is both a little late and a little weak.
The big surprise, therefore, is that the overwhelming majority of the film takes place during one mass game of rock-paper-scissors on a combination of luxury cruise liner and maximum-security prison. It was a key sequence of Sato’s film; here, for all intents and purposes, it is the film. That Han can draw so much tension and suspense out of the game is a huge benefit. If one pauses to seriously think out what is being played out, it is completely ridiculous. But it is all paced and staged so well that it is easy to simply let go and enjoy the ride.
Li is excellent as Kaisi and presents a more driven and hard-edged version of the character than Fujiwara’s noisy, highly-strung portrayal. Cao Bingkun and Zhou Dongu are both solid in support as Kaisi’s friend and potential girlfriend, respectively. The big surprise is Michael Douglas. The American actor has an unexpectedly prominent role as the gangster mastermind behind the ocean-borne gambling operation. Speaking entirely in English, he dominates each of his scenes with a heightened, somewhat menacing performance. He works in broad strokes, but importantly he knows it is the smartest way to play the character. The theatricality matches the excessive presentation of the story.
Events reach a climax, only to veer back around to boldly promise a sequel. With the success that Animal World is finding both at home and internationally (it was the third-highest grossing film in the world for its opening weekend), that sequel seems a safe bet. As a stand-alone feature, Animal World is over-the-top, dripping with excess, and genuinely rather odd. It is guaranteed to be the best alien-fighting vigilante clown rock-paper-scissor gambling movie you will see this year.