ANIMAL WORLD 动物世界. There’s animals in cages in this carnival-like fable of human avarice, but the most savage animal of them all is mankind itself.
Han Yan, the visionary director of the hallucinatory hit film GOODBYE, MR. TUMOR, tries his hand at the Hollywood-China fusion movement in ANIMAL WORLD, a spiraling spectacle-filled fantasy grounded in a visceral story about man’s love-hate relationship with that most enabling yet debilitating of human inventions: Money.
On stage for this tale of human need and greed for green is Hollywood star Michael Douglas, whose portrayal of corporate raider Gordon Gekko in the highly-acclaimed WALL STREET earned him an Oscar in 1988. As in that seminal film, Douglas plays foil and strong support to ANIMAL WORLD’s other notable signing, Chinese star Li Yi Feng, playing the film’s unassuming hero Zheng Kaisi.
Director Han Yan shows a deft mastery of the kind of storytelling tropes that until recently seemed only present in Hollywood films. Han Yan puts Kaisi through the eye of the needle while effortlessly shifting between the real and the eerie, pulling out the floor from under Kaisi’s desperate pitiful life.
Plot Summary: Kaisi (Li Yi Feng) is a dutiful though simple-minded man living on a financial knife edge. His mother is gravely ill with mounting medical expenses. He’s in a hopeless low paying job as a costumed clown at a video game arcade. He pines for a lovely nurse Liu Quing (Zhou Dongyu) but banishes the thought that in the modern day a ‘stupid clown’ like him would make for an appropriate suitor, yet he keeps her photo on the inside of a bright yellow candy tin, and tries to offer her flowers he handily plucked from a nearby vase just two feet from her. It’s a limbo of contented discontentment, the kind that would not be out-of-place in a straight drama show.
It’s a state that doesn’t last for long. Reality catches up. Kaisi has been missing hospital payments. A jet-setting suitor threatens to take away the love of his life. Pressure mounts so bad, Kaisi apologizes out loud to his comatose mother for his failure as a son. Kaisi agrees with a friend, Li Jun (Cao Bing Kun), to stake all his family’s remaining meager fortune in a scheme to make a bigger fortune. It is not out of greed that all this happens. His life and the life of others around him, including that of his comatose mother, is going down the tube. He is wound really tight. And it’s only the beginning.
Ratings: Must-Watch (5/5)
It is not a spoiler to learn that Kaisi and Li Jun lose all their money. Big wagers that occur in the opening act almost always go bad. It is the nature of the storytelling medium of films.
Kaisi eventually meets Jun’s terrible creditor who lent him half the money for their half-baked plans, a man only known as Anderson (Michael Douglas) whose mafia-like black-suited organization conducts a unique form of ‘corrective action’ for anyone who borrows money from them but does not pay them back.
Kaisi is joined by a gaggle of characters who also are indebted hopelessly to Anderson and brought onboard a floating funhouse-styled casino cruise ship named the “Destiny”. Anderson offers the chance to forgive all debts, but only to the ones who can win at a game moderated by their sinister host. It’s a simple but strange turn of events. So strange even the name of the ship’s home port is an unpronounceable word.
“Here, while playing the game. There are no morals. There are no limits to bind you. You can just listen to your animal instincts. And each of you can do what you need to do.” Anderson says, at which point no one is certain if he is talking about the world within the “Destiny”, or the world outside of it. And indeed, there is a whole other world of its own on board the “Destiny”. The cruise’s passengers include a cast of colorful adversaries who have made a career out of winning repeatedly at the expense of everyone else, and those just clawing away desperately to gain a ticket out of the ship and out of their debt.
In the decks within the “Destiny”, the film’s gritty real life drama gives way to a stylized, shimmering fantasy world – an “Animal World” – where all your life’s hopes and fears are distilled into a handful of cards, and where the cheapest commodity is life itself. Cheating is not just overlooked, but actively encouraged. Losing carries the ultimate penalty.
Michael Douglas’ Anderson hams it up with a layer of sadistic glee, watching his bad debtors bite at each other like starved pigs.
The film uses Kaisi’s vivid imagination to help him analyze and predict the odds in each melee of chance, but through this fantasy visual, the film also projects Kaisi into vivid daydreams where he takes on the form of a heroic clown warrior from a chaos-ridden cartoon show of his youth. This alter ego bears some resemblance to Kaisi’s dead-end day job costumed character. It is a projection of a hidden stronger version of himself. Seeing how Kaisi gets ahead of himself, and when he is taking himself ahead in real life, is a large part of the film’s fun.
Li Yi Feng is one to watch. His portrayal of Zheng Kaisi is equal parts loving son, hopeless lover, a generous man, and a desperate fighter. Li Yi Feng is convincing in all these modes and is the heart around which the whole film is able to shift moods smoothly.
It’s easy to root for him as he bets his heart and soul against those who would lie, cheat, and steal to win the game. He’s not doing this for money, although it is a financial setback that puts him there, but Han Yan makes it clear Kaisi is doing it for his friends, his mother, and for the love of his life.
But to win the game, Kaisi has to play it, and to win it, means it will be at someone’s expense which is the source of the film’s unrelenting tension. You play the game to win, but are you willing to bet your soul?
Adapted from Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s hit Manga “Ultimate Survivor Kaiji”, the theme of transaction terms made, then broken and reformed into new terms that are discarded on a whim are somewhat steeped in Asian commercial values (or rather in situations where such values are lacking), but it is an adequate analogy for winner-take-all attitudes anywhere on the planet. The price to be paid for taking the straight and correct path is obvious, but few understand the price they pay when they give up their virtues.
ANIMAL WORLD includes a musical score by Neal Acree (“Stargate SG-1”, “World of Warcraft”, “Overwatch”) with visual effects provided by WETA Digital with supervision by Martin Hill (“Prometheus”), Chris Spry (“Logan”, “Thor Ragnarok”), and Stuart White (“Thor Ragnarok”).
Giancarlo Ng is the director of Reversion and a founding member of The Magic Movie Machine.