By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Overflowing with energy and dazzling imagery, Animal World is a much-needed breath of fresh air for the Chinese film industry, whose recent big budget output has been, to put it mildly, wildly hit-and-miss.
For anyone who has seen the attention-grabbing trailers, the images that stay in the mind are those of a colourful, samurai sword wielding clown slashing aliens to pieces on a speeding commuter train, and that is exactly what we get early on. These violent scenarios play out in the mind of Zheng Kaisi (Li Yifeng), a young man who is low down on the social ladder. Disheartened by his dreary job as a clown at a kids arcade, Kaisi rarely achieves the required cheerful state for his young customers. Kaisi explains at very start that he is crazy, and that this murderous clown persona takes over whenever he becomes emotionally stressed, although he has yet to go to these extremes in the real world.
Proving more of a burden are the considerable medical costs paid each month to take care of his ailing mother, with partially available insurance barely keeping Kaisi’s head above water, and his mother from being relegated to the overcrowded hospital hallway. Helping Kaisi out is Qing (Zhou Dongyu), a compassionate nurse who has built up feelings for him, feelings which he wishes could be reciprocated.
When childhood friend and real estate agent Li Jun (Cao Bingkun) offers him a deal that could see the two of them rolling in money, Kaisi is initially hesitant, especially when part of it requires him to temporarily sell off the only asset he has, the family home. As financial pressures mount, Kaisi gives in, but the deal ends up being a complete disaster, leaving both he and Li Jun in mountains of debt. Rather intimidating figures suddenly appear on the scene, bringing the still devastated Kaisi to the office of the wealthy, mysterious Anderson (Michael Douglas), who explains that there is a way of paying off his insurmountable debt in one night.
This will involve Kaisi boarding a huge ship, named Destiny, in three days, where he will play an unknown game against a large group of fellow participants, all of whom are in similarly dire financial straits. If successful, the money that he owes will be paid off. However, if he loses, Kaisi will be sent to a place that is described as a fate worse than death. With no other option available to him, Kaisi reluctantly accepts the challenge. Let the games begin.
It takes a while before one realises that this is actually an adaptation of the hugely popular manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, which was previously brought to the small screen as an anime series in 2007 (with a series two appearing in 2011), and to the big screen as a live-action film in 2009, entitled Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, of Battle Royale and Death Note fame), which subsequently spawned a sequel in 2011. When Kaisi arrives on the Destiny, the film does follow Fukumoto’s source material quite faithfully, more so than the 2009 Toya Sato feature.
While the original story explored the seductive thrill and horrific consequences of gambling, and how the haves and have-nots follow very different sets of ‘rules’, this new reincarnation transports some of these themes to modern day China, which has been going through a massive, tumultuous transformation in becoming a major global economy. While many have profited from this corporate-fuelled mentality, creating a whole new generation of middle-class, a number have fallen through the cracks, crushed by both progress and the greed of this newly formed elite.
Yan Han, who directed the enjoyable First Time (2012) (a remake of the 2003 South Korean film …ing) and the terrific Go Away Mr. Tumor (2015), cleverly layers Kaisi’s surroundings, a seemingly never-ending series of winding highways and towering buildings, stifling and covering the lower class who are just trying to make ends meet, whether it be keeping their traditional shop stands open, or giving family members acceptable medical care. As Kaisi enters the elaborate gambling world overseen by Anderson, this is where Han’s remodelled script and Fukumoto’s manga merge, criticising the morally bankrupt environment in which the rich and powerful happily exist. With each player trying to win by any means possible, any form of honesty or integrity is seen as nothing more than a shameful liability.
This is a significantly larger project for Han, and he brings abundant confidence to proceedings, crafting a number of sequences that are genuinely jaw-dropping and exhilarating. Aided in part by Peter Jackson’s WETA Workshop (headed by VFX supervisor Martin Hill), the visual effects are a considerable step-up from other Chinese productions, and as such fully draw you in to its multiple, ambitious set-pieces. The minor downside is that Han places a number of these breathtaking moments early on, building up such a highly-charged atmosphere that when the main plot kicks in, one feels a jarring change in pace and tone, as if the film has come to a sudden halt. Thankfully Han skilfully adjusts both mood and focus, making the remaining running time move by quickly.
Han is aided immeasurably by a first-rate technical crew, bringing his unique vision to vibrant life. Special praise must go to cinematographer Max Da-Yung (What Women Want, The Lady and the Tiger), production designer Song Xiaojie, editor Yu Hongchao, composers Neal Acree and Michael Tuller, and every single effects technician.
Yifeng, who starred in the TV series The Legend of Chusen (2016), and received strong reviews for Hu Guan’s perplexingly ignored Mr. Six (2015) (a moody, engrossing drama/thriller that features an outstanding performance from director Xiaogang Feng), manages to keep audiences onside despite his unbalanced mental state and irresponsible nature, and remains commendably restrained at pivotal times where going over-the-top would have led to the film self-destructing. Bingkun does fine as Li Jun, who is forever endangering his lifelong friendship with Kaisi. It was certainly a stroke of genius casting veteran Douglas (The China Syndrome, Romancing the Stone, Black Rain) as Anderson, and he plays the role with relish. One could even see Anderson as a variation on Douglas’ iconic Gordon Gekko character, and the type of ruthless world he would gleefully enter once he was bored toying with people’s lives on the stock market.
Stealing the film however is Zhou Dongyu (Soulmate, This Is Not What I Expected), who delivers a wonderfully expressive performance with only a limited amount of screen time, and convincingly represents that hopeful, humane core Kaisi would love to embrace. One wishes there was more of her.
The international cast are effectively used, showing that the troubling, ever-increasing gap separating the rich and poor isn’t just endemic to China, and how oppressive corporate greed has distorted too many people’s view of what is right and wrong.
Given its aggressive and well-mounted marketing campaign, it’s obvious a lot is riding on the success of this expensive, large-scale production, with producers clearly wanting a succession of follow-ups (an end credits sequence does more than suggest that possibility). With a talented film-maker at the reigns, accompanied by a first-rate cast and crew, Animal World could very well be the first in a series of immersive features brimming with flamboyant colour and palpable danger. They are definitely off to a great start.