Have a Nice Day
Handcrafted crime film looks up at China from the animated gutter
Have a Nice Day (2018)
Directed by Liu Jian
Cast: Zhu Changlong, Yang Siming, Cao Kou
Modern economic forces and old-fashioned crime collide in Liu Jian’s offbeat, Quentin-
This short but tantalizing slice of pop art begins with a quote from Tolstoy about mankind’s predilection for paving over nature. From there, we are taken directly to a “free economic zone” in Southern China, a bleak industrial wasteland squatting in the shadows of a towering, unnamed city. Liu’s limited cell animation is slow to move, but the backgrounds explode with fussy detail. In Liu’s vivid, ligne claire style, paint peels from rain-scoured walls that are littered with posters and laminated in graffiti. The eye practically boggles at the visual minutiae. For those in the know, it’s like looking at a comic book by Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled, Shaolin Cowboy). For those less versed in comic book lore, it’s like a Tintin book gone starkly, bleakly punk rock real.
In this gritty, gorgeously grubby world, we are introduced to a young man named Zhang Xiao (voiced by Zhu Changlong), an unlicensed cab driver picking up a fare at a mob-run construction site. He immediately puts a knife to his passenger’s throat and relieves him of a bag containing one million yuan. (To put it in perspective, that’s only about $150,000.) The money belongs to local crime lord Uncle Liu. Stealing from him makes Xiao either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. As it turns out, it’s a bit more of the latter. Eventually, we learn that Xiao has stolen the money to correct his girlfriend’s recent botched cosmetic surgery. But his dreams of a beautiful fiancée are quickly squashed, as the money is stolen by a particularly inventive con man named Yellow Eye—who, in turn, is promptly ripped off by an opportunistic waitress.
From here, Liu’s narrative spins off in a half-dozen directions. Xiao, despite having lost all the money, finds himself hounded everywhere he goes. There’s the stalwart hitman dressed like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky sent by Uncle Liu to retrieve the loot. At one point Xiao’s girlfriend’s mom sends a family member to locate Xiao. That young woman’s boyfriend turns out to be a low-rent gangster, and the two hatch yet another plan to rob poor Xiao of the money he no longer has.
Every character on display in the ironically titled Have a Nice Day is on the make, working their side hustle, looking for some way to beg, borrow or steal a buck. Passing mentions of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election ground this bloody slapstick caper deeply in today’s contentious world. It’s no wonder this—like Liu’s previous work—was produced under the radar in China. It’s not an explicit critique of the country, but it certainly doesn’t paint China’s quiet embrace of Western capitalism in a favorable light.
Like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Have a Nice Day’s McGuffin object trades hands multiple times, resulting in a comically fluctuating string of good and bad fortunes. Liu clearly loves his deadpan humor, and much of the film’s jokes come at the expense of the frequently affectless characters. But the writer-director occasionally breaks out in unexpected ways, such as a mid-film sequence in which one woman’s dreams of escape from the urban world morph into a comically over-the-top Communist propaganda video.
Liu layers in his fair share of violence (even name-dropping The Godfather at one point). But the film isn’t as dark as it sounds on paper. (Most of the violence take place off screen.) With its panoply of greedy, bloodthirsty characters constantly crossing and re-crossing paths, viewers might expect the film to take on a more manic pace. Though the film borrows a cue or two from the oeuvre of Mr. Tarantino (the seriocomic crime action, the various criminal types having philosophical discussions about random topics), the pace is more in line with the languid, po-faced comedies of Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Mystery Train).
Have a Nice Day probably could have had a harder impact had Liu’s super-cyncial slow-mover found a more cutting moment on which to end its multi-car pileup of a narrative. But even as it sneaks out, quietly bruised and battered, it’s a witty, worthwhile example of postmodern arthouse animation.