Animal World (Review)

Animal World

aka 动物世界 aka Dongwu Shijie
Animal World
Based on the manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto
Written and directed by Han Yan

Animal World
The trailer for Animal World featured a murder clown slicing and dicing his way through subway cars full of rejected alien designs from the Star Wars prequels. Also Michael Douglas was randomly in it. These things meant that of course I was going to go watch it if I got a chance, and thanks to the magic of it actually getting a release in America and MoviePass, I snagged me a seat as soon as humanly possible. It also meant that I saw two separate Michael Douglas movies in theaters in one week, as Ant-Man and the Wasp also dropped. This is what we call synchronicity, and further solidified the goal of seeing Animal World in theaters. While the trailers were almost entirely murder clown-focused, Animal World is actually a movie about high-stakes gambling, as in you play Rock/Paper/Scissors on a ship in international waters, and if you lose, you get experimented on until you die! Don’t worry, it’s even more weird than it sounds, yet I can’t say I was disappointed.

Zheng Kaisi (Li Yifeng) is your typical young guy with problems, in that his parents were brutally assaulted as a child, leaving his dad dead, his mom in a coma, and Kaisi imprinted with a cartoon of a murder clown that was playing on the television during the attack. Now, whenever he is stressed, he will start seeing images of the monsters and believes he is transforming into the murder clown himself and striking them down. While this leads to some ridiculous imagery, it doesn’t lead to a healthy mental life, which is why he’s working as a clown in an arcade and perpetually broke. He can’t even afford to marry his girl Liu Qing (Zhou Dongyu – This Is Not What I Expected), who works at a nurse at the facility his mom is kept at. This changes when his former childhood friend Li Jun (Cao Bingkun) reappears with a can’t miss opportunity to make money. We all know this will miss spectacularly, and now Kaisi is in massive debt. Big enough debt goons are following him. Goons working for Michael Douglas, who plays a bored bankster who has resorted to organizing death sports among people who have gigantic debts. I guess it’s more profitable than them dying in bankruptcy?
Animal World

Before we know it, Kaisi is now on a boat in international waters playing a game of Rock/Paper/Scissors where if you lose too many times, you are dragged below deck. He reconnects with Li Jun and a new player named Meng, and together they try to work to ensure they win enough games to not become dead. Their problem is leagues of players who scam and cheat (not against the rules!) and the odds of probability. The biggest surprise is Animal World suddenly becomes a gigantic lecture on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, gambling statistics, probability theory, and math, much of which is animated so you can follow along. It is a weird bait and switch, but the added graphics and strategies help keep things interesting and let you follow along with what the heroes and the other gamblers are planning.

While I’m disappointed there wasn’t non-stop clown murder, Kaisi does immediately break out into clown murder fantasies, and throughout the film whenever there is danger or upcoming problems, he will visualize characters transforming into the subway monsters his clown slices through. There are other fantasies as well, including an incredible, must be seen car chase sequence while he tries to figure out a way to escape from being brought on the boat, and scenes of the environment changing – such as the floor turning into quicksand while the odds seem hopeless. The fantasy elements give this film a flavor all of its own, even the manga it is loosely based on, Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji, doesn’t seem to approach this level of visual chaos. The colors in the fantasy sequences are neon and garish, the alien monsters’ blood is like every flavor of Kool-Aid splashing about.

Li Yifeng is very charismatic, and even playing a guy with obvious impulse issues and delusions he still manages to come off as likable. His math prowess should mean he would be successful in life, but he’s haunted by the trauma that happened to his family. Despite the good stuff, the film’s style over substance makes it seem barebones in the plots. Zhou Dongyu is completely wasted in a bland supporting role that could have been filled by some producer’s mistress, which just makes me so angry as she is amazing and has little to work with here. Michael Douglas is barely in the film but his presence overshadows much of the supporting cast. Some of the strategies the heroes use seem questionable, but this is a unique situation so I’m not going to be too critical. Though honestly I’m not sure how exciting this concept would be to gamble on, I can’t see it peaking the interest of many bored billionaires when they could just go to the monkey knife fight yacht next door in international waters.

The various villains becoming monsters as they become dangerous to Kaisi manifest when money is involved. Li Jun first appears and his presence already sets off Kaisi, who goes along with his plan to get rich quick only because he can’t even afford to take care of his mother’s treatment, much less marry the woman he loves. The debts become enormous and characters point out how the interest accrues daily instead of annually. The characters are literally playing for their freedom to not live their entire lives under a crushing debt that will destroy them. It’s a good indictment of the current system of easy access to credit, leading to massive bubbles of student loans, car loans, housing loans, business loans, all the trillions of dollars that is empowering rampant growth but also becoming a gigantic drag on the economy as people struggle to make their payments. How much of it was intentionally going after parts of the Chinese economic system and how much is just coincidence (and manages to fit in with the American system, basically any capitalist system) remains to be seen. I’m just someone who doesn’t trust coincidences, and that’s probably the smart bet even if I don’t have animated graphics explaining why that is so.

Animal World is a weird movie, it does its own thing and boldly declares there will be a sequel. While it remains to be seen if that is the case, I can’t not like the film, but it isn’t going to be for everyone. It has a pretty limited market, but if you like strange cinema, murder clowns, or extreme gambling movies, then Animal World is your bag, baby! But next time, they better have more murder clown!!!
Animal World

Rated 6/10

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Animal World

Animal World

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Written by Tars Tarkas

Tars Tarkas

Runs this joint!