Animal World (2018)

Rating: C

Dir: Yan Han
Star: Yifeng Li, Yunhe Yi, Bingkun Cao, Michael Douglas

One of those names above is not like the others, shall we say. We’ll get to that. Meanwhile, add this Chinese film to another potential inspiration for Squid Game, coming out a full three years earlier. Zheng Kaisi (Li) gets scammed out of his mother’s apartment, leaving him with a mountain of debt, which he has no hope paying off in his job as a clown at a children’s arcade. He then gets an offer he literally can’t refuse. Take part in a game tournament on a cruise ship in international waters. If he’s lucky, he’ll be able to clear his obligation. If he’s very lucky, he might even come out ahead. But if he’s not… Well, he won’t have to worry about anything.

In this particular case, there’s just one game: rock, paper, scissors. Everyone starts with 12 cards (four of each) and three stars: each game, the contestants play a card, and the victor gets a star from the loser. To “win” the four-hour game, you have to end with three or more stars and no cards left. Stars and cards can be bought or exchanged, if you’re willing to risk running up more debt. Fortunately, Kaisi had an aptitude for math and probability, and after getting scammed by another player, teams up with two other participants, to improve all three of their chances of survival. However, they’re far from the only ones seeking to game the game, as it were.

I guess I’m impressed an entire, 132-minute film can be based around a very simple game. To its credit, the makers do as good a job as they can of explaining the tactics Kaisi uses, which certainly go far deeper than I ever imagined. However: it’s still rock, paper, scissors, and there’s only so far this can go as a spectator sport. If you thought the second half of Casino Royale had too much dull poker-playing – and I did – then this has much the same problem. Initially, the film has some really good sequences, courtesy of its hero’s imagination. There’s a brilliant, insanely spectacular chase he imagines takes place just before he boards the ship.

But too much of this is just people literally putting their cards on the table and saying “Check” in dramatic tones. Even the presence of Douglas – and, yes, it is that Michael Douglas – as Anderson, the man behind the curtain, doesn’t add sufficient drama to proceedings. I’m sure he was adequately compensated, and I kept hearing the Michael Caine/Jaws 4 quote: “I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” This isn’t as bad as that shark-shaped turkey, with a decent visual style – a $30-40 million budget goes a long way in China, clearly. An appreciation for the depths inherent in a children’s game isn’t sufficient to stand in place of a broader narrative, no matter how much it may be tricked out in stars, cards and the prospect of a terrible fate. Sadly, despite the title, I don’t even get to file this in When Chinese Animals Attack.