After a good 15 years of discovering its own identity, modern Chinese cinema is finally settling down in predictable niches and easily marketable genres and franchises. That doesn't mean the good times are all in the past, but you do have to look a little harder and deeper to unearth the gems. Yan Han is a director who impressed me before and when I heard he was doing a manga adaptation, I was really intrigued to see where that would lead him. Turns out that it's a stellar combination, resulting in a film well worth recommending.
Even though China and Hong Kong have close ties, their film industries are very different from each other. Point in case their manga adaptions. Hong Kong tried to do a couple in the past (Wicked City, Dragon Ball and City Hunter spring to mind), but the films always ended up as disappointments. It seems that Hong Kong's systematic approach to (genre) film making just doesn't mix well with the more unrestrained freedom of Japanese comics. China on the other hand allows for more artistic freedom, which is exactly why Animal World is so much better than those old Hong Kong attempts.
Animal World is an adaptation of Fukumoto Nobuyuki's Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, a long-running manga that has already received two Japanese feature film adaptations (and of course an anime treatment). Animal World ignores these movies and starts anew, though it's still a little unclear to me why exactly they're rebooting this in China. While I'm not familiar with the Kaiji franchise, the setup felt a lot like the Liar Game films (another manga-based franchise), with an outrageous, high-stakes game/social experiment conceived to unearth the players' animal instincts and to try and strip away the fabric of society.
In this case, the game is set up to lure in poor people hoping to make a quick buck. They're all gathered in a room where they can face off in rock-paper-scissor challenges against each other. Some basic rules (there's a 4 hour time limit, you need to lose all your cards and average a positive win/lose balance) are given, allowing people enough elbow room to cheat, betray and strategize their way to victory. The film follows Zheng Kaisi, a smart kid whose mother's illness combined with an old personal trauma keeps him from realizing his full potential. He gets dragged into the game when one of his friends sets him up and they both have to pay the price.
Even though Han doesn't work with a dedicated cinematographer, he clearly cares about the visual finish of his films. While Animal World could've easily turned into more generic commercial genre fare, the crazy editing, extravagant styling and elaborate camera work make it into something more. Much like First Time, the film is elevated through the cinematography. The CG isn't top tier though, but it's never superfluous and is only used wen it adds something substantial to the experience. Things do settle down a little after a crazy first 30 minutes, but the visual quality remains high throughout.
The soundtrack is way more generic. Mostly filler music that assists the atmosphere of a particular scene, but is never present enough to actually steer or command it. It's not too irritating or distracting, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember any particular pieces afterwards. The sound editing on the other hand is spot on and flows really well with the visual editing, enhancing its impact and making it more visceral. A significant plus for a film that aims to wow with its style and presence.
The most notorious actor walking around in Animal World is no doubt Michael Douglas. A Hollywood relic hired to draw in Western audiences. This rarely works of course and Douglas' performance is actually one of the weaker ones of the film, so that's a bit of a miscast right there. Luckily his screen time is quite modest. It's Yifeng Li who impresses the most as the film's lead, both in his regular form as well as in his clown persona. The rest of the secondary cast is decent, though no real stand-out performances there.
Animal World features a rather extended subplot regarding Kaisi's fascination with clowns, sadly it feels a little tacked on. It does play an important part in wrapping up the story so it's definitely not without function, but it never really blends in with the broader game premise of the film. I'm usually not one to moan about plot, especially not in more entertainment-focused films like this one, but as the clown-element is by far the most intriguing and exciting of the two, I did feel like the film could've spent some more time in that part of its universe. It's a small nitpick but it does prevent the film from getting an ever higher score.
If you're looking for something fun, dashing and creative, Animal World won't disappoint. It's a little mad, a little showy and often a bit incoherent, but in the end it's a hell of a ride. Han shows himself a very capable director, one who can handle different genres and whose signature doesn't distract but adds to the genre elements. This is usually the part where I complain about the availability of whatever Chinese film I'm praising, but Netflix acquired the global release rights for this one so if you're lucky (it's not available yet in all locations) can get right to it. Hopefully Han will returns for the inevitable sequel.