Go far enough away from any major Chinese city and you’ll find yourself in its hollow replica: empty apartment towers in rows miles long, underground malls five stories deep patrolled by lonely night watchmen, factories with long-forgotten heydays somehow still smoking. These are old boom towns’ skeletons and the frontiers of the new expansion. Mass migration from rural China and a land market flush with eager buyers prop up these developments. Come on by, we’ve got room. Take a job in hospitality. Grab a kebab on your way out.
Liu Jian’s animated crime film Have a Nice Day places its wannabe criminals and overweight gangsters in one of these cities. The setting is vaguely Southern, somewhere in the 1900 miles between Shanghai and Shangri-La. A massive “development zone”, a dingy hotel, and an Internet bar serve as the principal action sites. Xiao Zhang, a development construction worker involved in a local crime network, steals a million RMB from his boss, Uncle Liu. He wants to redo his girlfriend’s botched plastic surgery, but soon enough an inventor looking for startup capital and a Fauvist boxer are on his tail. The motivations don’t matter. The black bag full of red cash is freedom in physical form, and everyone in town will do whatever it takes to have it.
Freedom, indeed, is in high demand. Never mind the characters’ dead-end jobs and conversations equating the online shopping experience to true independence: the animation itself is claustrophobic, disturbing in containment. Tall grass, high buildings, car doors, and thick countertops are constantly shutting in the film’s foreground action. Movement itself is strictly limited to one plane: characters remain at a fixed distance from the camera, while vertical motion occurs only in elevators. The camera itself never moves except across edits. Zooming, panning, and tracking are unknown, as the camera is satisfied with wide shots of conversations and the occasional close-up to character expressions. Liu Jian’s meticulously designed backgrounds, filled with abandoned bicycles and Bruce Lee movie posters, compensate for the static camera. Think of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s panoramic beauty, Beavis and Butthead’s stunted and superflat animation, and No Country for Old Men’s tense shoot-outs and cash grabs.
Thematically, Have a Nice Day bears resemblance to other modern Chinese crime dramas such as Free + Easy or Black Coal, Thin Ice. Yet its animation style and idiosyncratic art set it in a class of its own. Where other Chinese dramas muck about in brown, grey, and dark greens, Have a Nice Day bursts with sickly, muted tones of primary colors. More than anyone else, Liu Jian has managed to capture and celebrate the kitschy despair of super-urban China. An assassin pauses work to respond to a real estate telemarketer; a construction worker sells a turtle to a friend, insisting that it “works better than Viagra”. A young couple’s daydreams of vacation are depicted as a sentimental two-minute travel agency advertisement, the oversaturated child of a Lichtenstein print and a communist propaganda poster come to life. Shortly after, they are dispatched by a hitman.
Much of the humor in this film can be found in the voice actors’ excellent work. Characters react to everything from a broken car to a cleaver in the face with monotone, dialected deadpans. Here, no one ever cries, screams, or cracks up, a welcome relief from the exuberance of American comedies. Even when begging for their lives, these characters maintain a measured cadence. Maybe it’s the influence of the nearby Buddhist temple, or one too many meat bun-induced food comas. Liu Jian has managed to depict stagnation so ubiquitous that it’s funny, deaths so quiet that they serve as rebirths, indifference so profound that it becomes a form of strength.
Have a Nice Day is a weird little addition to modern Chinese cinema, but it is an undeniable achievement. Poetic beauty is achieved through exercises in restraint. A slow iguana pauses on the train tracks as a horn is heard. A killer breaks form and leans into the camera, his menace seeping through the screen. Graceful rain falls on a 100 RMB bill. The film lives in the gutters of Asian superpower. Where intimacy is violent and friendships are fleeting. Where fresh air is a proxy for fulfillment and capital is a weapon. Where ties don’t bind, signs flicker, and no one is to be trusted.