I feel like I have grounds to sue Animal World (a.k.a. Dong wu shi jie) for false advertising. Literally all of the promotional materials promised me a clown. And I don’t mean a clown in the political sense. He’s a clown who’s seen wearing whiteface make-up and has a bald-cap/fright wig combo, the tiny hat, the motley jacket, and the big old clown shoes. Yet he’s no ordinary clown (as if such a thing exists). He also displays sweet action moves and is equipped with two very fashionable and very sharp katanas.
I, like any rational human being that is also a part-time clown in his career, went, “Oh, my God. A hero clown? I thought such a movie only existed… in my dreams!” The trailers showed a clown that fights and slashes evil monsters that take on the forms of humans who live among us, i.e. They Live but with better special effects.
This is clearly what is promised on the movie posters, which feature the ninja clown prominently. An action sequence featuring this action harlequin happens early in the movie. He does some sick spin moves, attacking misshapen beasties from beyond your imagination in a crowded train car.
It turns out it’s a front. This movie isn’t about no action clown. It’s actually about something far, far more mundane.
It’s about math.
Animal World is an adaptation of a manga called Kaiji, which is about a poor high school graduate who eventually gets caught up in a web of gambling and deceit. He gets involved in tournaments that are higher and higher stakes, where sometimes one’s life is on the line. I read the synopsis on Wikipedia… and at no point does it seem that clowns are involved. Hence I am led to conclude that this, and the anime that our lead character takes his inspiration from, is all a total fabrication by director and writer Han Yan, who at one point must have seen It and concluded, “Do you know what Pennywise needed? Swords.”
Li Yifeng is Zheng Kaisi, a costumed performer at a cheesy children’s arcade. He’s got perpetual money troubles. His mom is in a coma, and being unable to afford payments her bed is moved from a comfortable room and into a hallway. He has to mortgage the family home. And worst of all, he’s crazy. From time to time he imagine that he’s a hero clown from an anime, which fuels his real life rage. From time to time, there’s a Fight Club blip, clown Yifeng is overlayed over real Yifeng for a split second, and the clown rage takes over.
Sadly, it’s mostly about pounding dudes in the face with fists. At no point does he squirt an opponent with liquid acid, nor does he pound a guy into the ground with an oversized hammer, nor does he twist a man’s arm into a simple balloon dog. Just basic “fist to the face” stuff.
Kaisi, like his manga counterpart, gets involved in a web of debt and gambling. This eventually runs him afoul of the movie’s big villain: MICHAEL F**KING DOUGLAS. You see, Michael Douglas has a way for Kaisi to get out of his debt. He runs a ship that gambles on international waters. A game, if you will. Participants in this game are given big opportunities to win money to pay off their debt. Lose this game, and you can lose your life. There will be many other participants in this game, all with their own agendas and strategies. This big game should, in fact, remind you of another famous movie that Michael Douglas starred in.
I’m talking Ant-Man, of course. You know, where he manipulates a bunch of career criminals into winning the big prize of the Ant-Man outfit.
Ah, but what is this game you might ask? Is it pit fighting? Is it a battle royale scenario where everyone is given a bag with a weapon and they must fight it out to the death in the hull of a remote ship? Oh, no no, my friends, it’s more mundane than that. When our contestants are led into the hull of the ship, they’re face with tables like this is the lobby of a Las Vegas casino. The game is cards. Now, James Bond has made an entire movie series based on high-stakes card games, so this is nothing new. So what’s on the table? Baccarat? Texas Hold-’em?
No. One card has a fist. The second card is a stretch out palm. The third card is a hand with two fingers outstretched.
This is a high-stakes game of rock, paper, scissors.
At this point, I’m throwing my arms up in the air. Han Yan, if you are reading this, I am addressing you directly. You are being too much of a tryhard at being quirky. I was sort of on board with the action clown, who incidentally only seems to be shoehorned in this movie because no one would select this on Netflix if they knew that this was a movie about a Rock Paper Scissors card game. Shoot, there’s even a car chase stuck in the middle of the movie that turns out to be all a product of Kaisi’s imagination. If you knew that the core concept of this movie was so boring that you needed to stick quirky dream sequences in the middle of it, why in the hell did you write this situation in the first place?
The worst part? He takes the core competition deadly seriously. There are all sorts of dumb rules that he tries to explain to us. Everyone is given a deck of cards and a chance to advance to the next level on the ship. But you need to have a certain amount of star pins on your sleeve (which you can lose if you lose a game of rock, paper, scissors), and you have to get rid of all the cards in your deck. But you can trade stars and cards among competitors at any time, and take loans from the clerk to buy more stars and cards.
But that’s not all! It turns out that you can use MATH to help win! It turns out that Kaisi is some sort of genius savant. What this has to do with his flights of clown fancy, I have no idea. Maybe he goes into his mind palace because nothing in the real world stimulates his neurons? It turns out that in this den of sin, he flowers into a top-level gambling strategist! Like he susses out that almost everyone will plane in a cyclical pattern of three cards, so playing the same card all three times give you better odds, and you can stock up a the rock card if you predict a scarcity of paper cards in the future, and… WHY ARE YOU TAKING ROCK PAPER SCISSORS SO SERIOUSLY, HAN YAN? WHY!?!??
Suddenly you’re stuck watching a less-good version of the movie 21. This is deception. Deception of the highest order. This is clown appropriation! CLOWNPROPRIATION! (Copyright: El Santo LLC, 2018.) We were promised clowns and instead given the slick, seedy word of mathematical probability and statistics. Be ashamed of yourself, Han Yan. Be ashamed.
It’s nice to see Michael Douglas again, though he does at times seem to be sleepwalking in his role. In his initial appearance, he slurs his words and I am 100% convinced that he was taking a bit of a nip in between takes. (There’s a part where he stumbles across a line and goes, “I have no idea how it’s pronounced!” And I’m all, “That wasn’t in the script.”) Still, even sleepwalking his voice just commands your attention. You just want Hank Pym to be on your screen as much as possible. He gets more screentime than action clown, at least.
Li Yifeng, a man who possess fashion model good looks but is playing a loser that ladies don’t love, isn’t bad either. Sure, he sorta doesn’t make any sense. Plus the deck is stacked in his favor (see what I did there?) from the start by giving him money troubles, a sick mom, a dead dad, and a worried girlfriend. Yet he remains very sympathetic as he keeps his cool while people who he thinks are his friends backstab him in the back. Michael Douglas theorizes that this game of Rock, Paper, Scissors is so intense that the players will all revert to their wild animal instincts. An animal world, if you will. (Frankly, this would be much more believable if, rather than a game where a lot of people survive to pay off their debts, he’d given them all weapons and they had to fight until one man remained alive, but that’s just me.)
Kaisi doesn’t turn into an animal. He explains that he is a clown. Logically, he should become wild and feral like everyone else. Instead, he stands apart and stays true to himself despite everyone on the ship telling him that the only way to win is to lie and cheat and steal.
Maybe the real action clown was the friends we made along the way. We’ll find out in Animal World 2: The Fallen Kingdom!
Netflix secured the rights for global distribution. Stream it there.
NEXT: I will be watching this movie on the tiny screen of my iPhone, which hopefully means that I will only invoke a very tiny Sadako. That’s right: just in time for Halloween, it’s The Ring (1998).
Also, some production notes: I’m not sure when I’ll have time to write the next entry for this or BnB Shame, as real life has me doing both baby care duties and a new spot as a volunteer finance guy (to which I will be doing some training). I’m not shuttering either series, but it may get a little sporadic in the coming months. Though I will try to get through the Halloween ones pretty quickly.