Have a Nice Day Review
Bringing together flashes of early pulpy Tarantino and sharp political commentary into a simple but effective style, Chinese director Liu Jian's Have a Nice Day looks set to be one of the best animated films of 2018. There are few Chinese cinematic references that compare as underneath the straightforward gangster caper lies a bitterly funny and incisive look at life in the country today. This feeds through into Liu's artistic style which is more akin to a crisply drawn graphic novel than the type of animation we have become accustomed to from the Asian continent.
Have a Nice Day places us in the rundown suburban outskirts of a southern based city, typified by the sleazy looking hotels and cafés filled with shady low-lifes from the criminal underworld. The muted colour palette is as drained as the optimism of the people whose big dreams are only ever likely to remain just that. An excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Resurrection, opens the film speaking of nature's struggle to survive in a concrete jungle created by man – directly addressing the current building boom in China that is rapidly changing the traditional green landscape that has typified the country for so long.
The set-up is simple enough in itself. Xiao Zhang (voiced by Zhy Changlong) is employed as a low-level driver by local mob leader Uncle Liu (Yang Siming). He unexpectedly decides to steal a bag of his Uncle’s money containing one million yuan so he can pay for his girlfriend to travel to South Korea to receive corrective plastic surgery. All it takes is a quick phone call for cold-blooded assassin Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng) to start hunting him down and it isn’t long before an opportunistic thief - who goes by the name of Yellow Eye (Cao Kou) - has the money firmly in his possession. Before you can bat an eyelid a whole carousel of characters are going round in circles chasing the cash as the plot twists back and forth towards a literal car crash of an ending.
Western culture can be seen almost everywhere you look, with film posters of Rocky and the Fast and the Furious half peeling off the crumbling walls, a brief mention of Brexit and a short burst of Trump's voice heard on the car radio. The pacing is slow and deliberate with the characters often heading off on conversational tangents discussing the success of super entrepreneurs like Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs. Construction sites fill the skyline but while China is changing the access to freedom is not (which is brilliantly analogised into three levels: farmers market, supermarket and online shopping freedom). Even a blackly funny musical dream sequence which evokes old Mao iconography ironically mocks the limits of the characters modest ambitions.
While Liu’s animation can look crude at times it doesn’t lessen the impact of the story or its themes. Very little movement happens in many of the frames but the detail of the background art more than compensates. Which is not to say there aren’t some eventful set-pieces in the film and this stripped down aesthetic only enhances Liu's lean storytelling. The bag of money acts as a MacGuffin of sorts although the meaning of the notes themselves - clearly marked by pictures of Mao – gain more significance the deeper we head into this world.
Running for a trim 77 minutes, Have a Nice Day gets its point across without a fuss. Even though most of the social commentary is cleverly coded within the artwork or seemingly random dialogue, given the severity of China's censorship, Liu has done an impressive job smuggling this past their eagle eyes. While delivering a serious message Liu never overlooks the need to maintain the films cool veneer by delivering an entertaining story with panache. The ending may be bleak but it matches the sombre mood hanging over the entire piece, leaving you in no two minds about his view on contemporary China.