Li Yifeng considers which card to play next in "Animal World."

I just saw this Chinese film called Animal World at AMC Grapevine Mills, and while it’s not much good as a movie, it poses a math problem that I can’t get out of my head. So I’m writing up this film (which just outearned the Jurassic World sequel at the Chinese box office) and hoping that someone with my fondness for such problems and a deeper background in game theory can break it down for me.

The movie starts like a whole other type of story, with Zheng Kaisi (Li Yifeng) a depressed young man working as a clown in a video arcade and imagining himself as some Joker-like superhuman battling monsters. This has no bearing on the rest of the film, and even more confusingly, is apparently not in the Japanese manga comic that this is based on. We get 20 minutes of a movie about some loser coping with his dead-end life by escaping into violent fantasy until his childhood friend Li Jun (Cao Bingkun) loses both their life savings by roping him into a real-estate scam that Kaisi should really be smart enough to avoid.

The math problem only starts when Kaisi is abducted by a mysterious American named Anderson (Michael Douglas) who owns his debt. He offers the young man a chance to clear his losses in one night by participating in a game, and soon Kaisi is on a seedy cargo ship with Li Jun and 101 other desperate men. The game is rock-paper-scissors, and each player starts the game with three metal stars affixed to an armband, as well as 12 playing cards marked with a symbol denoting rock, paper, or scissors (four of each). The players go to one of several dealer tables and play their cards one at a time against others. Win a hand, and you get to take one star from the other player. Lose, and be forced to surrender a star to your opponent. Draw, and no stars change hands. After each hand, the referees at the tables remove the cards from circulation. (The refs are all black men, for reasons that are never explained.) The object of the game is for players to play all 12 of their cards and emerge with at least three stars, the prize being freedom. A clock gives everyone four hours to play, and anyone with less than three stars or any cards left to play at the end of that time gets taken down to the ship’s hold to be subjected to horrible medical experiments. A big scoreboard shows not only the time left but also how many cards of each type remain in play on the gaming floor. A bank on the floor advances cash loans to players at absurdly high interest rates, and the players can use the money to buy stars or cards off other players. Sellers get to name their price, and those who finish the four hours with more than three stars can unload their extras for a mint to losing gamblers who want to stay alive.


Kaisi’s first strategy is the obvious one: Pair up with a buddy and arrange to have both players play the same cards in the same order, resulting in 12 draws and both players walking free. But since the players are mostly strangers to one another, it’s impossible to tell who to trust, and the guy Kaisi colludes with (Su Ke) cheats him out of two stars before he realizes it. (Oh, yeah: Players are allowed to cheat each other but not the house. One guy tries to flush his cards down the toilet, and Anderson executes him in the middle of the casino floor.) Kaisi then gathers with Li Jun and a sad sack with broken glasses (Wang Ge) to pool their stars and develop a winning strategy, made possible by their knowledge of which cards are left in the game. When paper cards starting running substantially lower than the other types, Kaisi tells his cohorts to buy up rock cards with their cash advance, figuring that those cards will either draw other rocks or beat the still-plentiful scissors cards. However, this tactic backfires when somebody picks up the strategy and starts hoarding papers, forcing Kaisi to reverse his direction before his rocks become worse than useless. Later, he faces down the guy who cheated him earlier, knowing that the man has one card that he must get rid of and trying to bait him into making a bad bet with it.

What else? The casino floor is monitored extensively by security cameras, and no physical violence is allowed, so taking someone else’s stars by force isn’t an option. Anderson’s game combines the bluffing elements of poker or the prisoner’s dilemma with the card-counting possibilities of blackjack, while rewarding those who know the laws of supply and demand. Animal World is dry and repetitive, but it got my gamer brain going. My question to you, gamers, is what would be the best strategy to beat Anderson at his game? How would you play?

Animal World

Starring Li Yifeng and Michael Douglas. Written and directed by Han Yan, based on Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga comic. Not rated.