Man, Animal World is weird. I don’t mean that as a voyeuristic foreign observer of a Chinese film, or as a commentary on some of the insane ideas working under the hood of the film, or even as a blatant feeling of absurdist joy at the action spectacle Animal World has to offer. …Okay, maybe I do mean all those things, but I also mean something more. For all the batshit zaniness going on in Animal World, there’s a weirdly benign direction the affair ends up taking that, while still interesting in its own right, feels like a failed promise of something more.
The film opens on a monologue from protagonist Zheng Kaisi (Li Feng Yi) explaining that he is insane. As a child, he became obsessed with a cartoon called Super Clown, wherein a sword-wielding clown fought demonic forces with plenty of neon-splattered blood spraying everywhere. Now, as an adult, Zheng works a dead-end job to support his comatose mother, but when he starts to lose his temper, the people around him start to morph into demons, and he fantasizes about laying waste to them in scenarios that mirror the cartoon, dressed as that very same clown.
When Zheng slips into his daydreams, the camera will surreally shake, zooming in on minor details only to crazily morph perspective until you’re looking at something completely different and potentially contorting into something hellish. When the action sequences start, they are appropriately bloody and kinetic, demonstrating a remarkable eye from director Yan Han and cinematographer Max Da-Yung Wang for placing a single human actor in an entirely digital space wherein he must physically combat dozens of imaginary opponents. In other words, the fight scenes kick ass, and while the CG monster creations aren’t quite up to par with what modern Hollywood can create, they look realistic enough that the suspension of disbelief holds true.
So what’s so strange about Animal World is that these fantasy sequences pop up – sometimes out of nowhere – and one would think this is setting up some sort of arc in which Zheng acts out his fantasies in the real world, dealing with his anger in ways that aren’t helpful to himself or his loved ones. But that’s not where the film goes at all. In fact, the whole clown business is almost entirely superfluous, popping in to demonstrate flashes of Zheng’s mental state throughout the film, but it's never actually addressed by the plot or Zheng’s character development. I wouldn’t wish for this element to be removed, as it’s easily the most fun the movie has to offer, but it’s such a strange conceit to then do nothing to explore.
The real plot of Animal World kicks in when Zheng’s friend asks him to put his apartment up for a mortgage to assist on a mutual investment, but then this friend subsequently loses the money gambling, leaving Zheng on the hook to an American businessman played by Michael Douglas – really – for the entirety of the lost debt. In order to wipe out the massive total of the debt his friend incurred, Zheng agrees to board the businessman’s ship to international waters to participate in a game that, should he win, will forgive his debt. I’d say it’s like Hunger Games, except there doesn’t seem to be anyone watching the game either on the ship or remotely, and the festivities are a lot less directly violent, since the game being played is literally a form of Rock Paper Scissors.
I told you this got weird.
Yes, as strange as it may seem, this entire film hinges on an elaborate game involving desperate debtors non-violently playing a card-game version of Rock Paper Scissors for their freedom. The rules are a bit more complicated than that, and the consequences of elimination from the game are potentially fatal, but that’s the basic gist of this bizarre take on a sports movie through the lens of gambling. And for what it’s worth, Yan Han makes the affair actually kind of interesting, investing the story with elements of resource management, long-term strategy, and antagonistic mind games that are legitimately tense and earned. It reminds me of nothing so much as a sports anime, complete with long expository monologues with elaborate graphics to explain card-counting tactics and demonstrate where each of the players stand, which makes sense since this is apparently based on a Japanese manga, Kaijii: Ultimate Survivor.
This makes for a pretty fun little film about an absurd underground competition, and Yan Han invests his narrative with some pretty harsh criticism of those who value personal wealth more than human compassion. But the whole business with the demon-fighting clown is such an odd way to introduce this character and this story, and it feels like the set-up for a movie I’d rather be watching. I couldn’t tell you whether that element is a holdover from the source material, and it does seem Yan Han is setting up a sequel in a mid-credits stinger that might explore Zheng’s alter ego further, but as a singular entity Animal World is oddly split in its focus and doesn’t deliver the story it promises in its first act. The movie we eventually get is just fine, pretty good even, but it feels intent to reel you in with false expectations that can only serve to make the real plot inevitably disappointing. Here’s hoping that promised sequel actually does something with this bonkers Pennywise-meets-Kick Ass concept.