When asked about the challenges of parodying contemporary China during the promotional tour for his acerbic action-comedy Gone with the Bullets (2014), iconoclastic actor-director Jiang Wen declared, “China today is beyond parody. It is already a huge satirical work.” Such claims have evidently not deterred indie animation director Liu Jian, whose old school 2D style proves to be a more suitable canvas for skewering the corrosive moral state of an accelerated society than live action.
Confidently extending the flat, deadpan realism of his debut feature Piercing I (2010), Liu’s vicious crime caper Have a Nice Day satirizes everyday life on the fringes of an unnamed third-tier city in the South. Rendered with simple cel animation, this is a world of construction sites, late-night noodle bars, seedy motels, and shady dealings. Surveillance cameras are everywhere but the state doesn’t seem to care about what anybody gets up to. It’s the kind of perpetually in-development space that will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in parts of that China receive little media attention but are actually more indicative of how its culture has been impacted by globalization than its gleaming metropolises.
An increasingly grizzly cycle of events is kicked off when lowly driver Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong) steals a million Yuan (roughly $150,000) from his underworld employer in order to abscond to South Korea with his girlfriend since she needs an operation to “repair” a failed cosmetic surgery procedure. After checking into a railway motel, he tries to reach her from a smoky Internet café, but has already attracted the attention of the hammer-wielding Yellow Eye (Cao Kou), a wannabe inventor who wears a pair of X-ray glasses. Meanwhile, mobster Uncle Liu (Yang Shiming) receives word that he has been robbed and calls on the services of ice cool, fedora-wearing hitman Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng), who works as a butcher during the day.
If the narrative sounds like a late-1990s Quentin Tarantino imitation, then that’s all part of Liu’s commentary on how today’s China has been shaped by Western influence. Yet its efforts to make what has been pilfered from elsewhere its own have often resulting in a hollow, makeshift post-culture. The inherent contradiction of this increasingly plugged-in society is that everyone has a smart phone but few are actually smart enough to fully question or research the abundant information. Therefore, VR-fixated Yellow Eye spouts off about funding his “startup”, Skinny bursts out in gallows laughter upon hearing the news of Donald Trump’s election victory on the radio, a disillusioned student claims there is no point in attending a British university because “they’ve already left Europe”, and everyone is in thrall to the sweeping maxims of successful businessmen, whether from home (Jack Ma) or abroad (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs). They talk like they are ahead of the global curve, but the cluttered anonymity of this urbanized landscape and the cruel lengths everyone will go to in pursuit of the cash suggests otherwise.
Indeed, everything here revolves around money, as engagement with friends and family has been reduced to superficial reflexes since economic greed ruthlessly overrides once binding human contracts. China has become a society of extremes as exemplified by Uncle Liu’s gangster mentor, Brother Biao, who is considering spending the rest of his life as a monk after lining his pockets through nefarious enterprises. Between brazen corruption and seeking refuge in spirituality, there is a middle-ground of sorts represented by the hapless Xiao Zhang, who may have committed theft at knife-point but is only trying to ensure his girlfriend’s happiness. Unfortunately, he’s also typical of China’s opportunistic ‘fast money’ foolishness since he doesn’t seem to have considered how to deal with the consequences of his actions after returning from South Korea. Given how this type of narrative usually plays out, though, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Xiao Zhang doesn’t get that far.
This crucial lack of individual thinking is gleefully sent-up in the film’s glorious centerpiece, which finds a couple of loosely connected nobodies fantasizing about what they will do with the money while speeding to the railway motel. Their vision of a life of leisure in a gaudy resort known as ‘Shangri La’ takes the form of a hilariously outdated commercial, compete with flickering VHS tracking lines and fuzzy sound. Liu presents a burst of ideological confusion as images of Chinese history, Maoist iconography, and movie posters are set to a subversive jingle that mixes the spirit of propaganda with post-socialist consumer urges.
Liu’s animation style has a deceptive crudity that really pulls the viewer in with its mix of shabbiness and severity. It’s a flexible aesthetic that enables him to pile on the noir cruelty of the Coen Brothers or relax into a static dialogue scene that cleverly unpack supposed “freedom” brought about by China’s consumer revolution through reference to the different levels of supermarkets that its citizens can now shop at. Cut to composer David Liang’s infectious beats, Have a Nice Day rarely flags while the frustrations of its hand-drawn criminals, deadbeats, and general no-hopers often feel palpably real.