Animal World film review: Li Yifeng, Michael Douglas in Chinese gambling fantasy, based on Japanese hit Kaiji
An earnest adaptation of a profoundly silly Japanese anime, Chinese director Han Yan’s film is about a young man stuck in a dead-end job who dreams of slaying monsters and gets sucked into a deadly game of rock-paper-scissors
Chinese filmmaker Han Yan has made an admirably earnest adaptation of Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga and anime series Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, with its profoundly silly premise. The director once again shows his aptitude for inserting wildly incongruent fantasy sequences into a story, having earlier put a couple of zombie attacks into the romcom Go Away Mr. Tumour (2015).
The fantasy action scenes in Animal World arrive in the shape of the monster-slaying daydreams of young man Zheng Kaisi (Li Yifeng), whose periodic escapes into his violent, cartoon-inspired subconscious may well stem from a traumatic episode from his childhood – more on that in the deliberately flagged sequel.
Stuck in a low-end job at an arcade centre and already struggling to provide for his childhood sweetheart (Zhou Dongyu) or settle the hospital bills of his comatose mother, Zheng lands in further trouble when his gambling-addicted buddy (Cao Bingkun) tricks him into taking on an enormous debt to a mysterious international syndicate headed by Michael Douglas’ charismatic villain.
Those who have seen the original anime or the two live-action Japanese adaptations in 2009 and 2011 should be familiar with the elaborate scenario at the story’s core, which sees the protagonist taken on an absurdly designed casino cruise ship where players must compete in a tournament of rock-paper-scissors card games. Those who win can clear their debts, while losers risk losing their lives.
Much cheating and back-stabbing ensues in the highly artificial drama, in which Zheng uses his quick wits against his morally corrupt opponents.
It’s interesting to note Animal World has ditched the 2009 film’s fatal physical challenges and satirical elements – debtors in that film were trapped as slaves to build an underground nuclear shelter – and stayed away from any allusion to the apocalypse.
For all its bizarre mishmash of highly stylised fantasy, quiet romance and scattered lessons on probability, Animal World is consistently entertaining and a marginal improvement on the histrionics of its Japanese predecessor.
Animal World opens on July 12
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