Have a Nice Day

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Chinese writer/director/animator Liu Jian isn’t messing around with his new film Have a Nice Day. Kicking off with a lengthy quote from Tolstoy’s Resurrection — about nature’s enduring power in the face of our own destructive impulses — this ironically titled animated gangster film serves up a fairly pitiless portrait of modern-day China in an age of globalisation. Set in a small town on the outskirts of an unnamed city, its quartet of stories — each one a tale of woe — collectively functions as comment on the way rapid change always seems to come with the promise of a brighter future, a future that inevitably remains tantalisingly out of reach for those with their feet in the gutter. That’s certainly the case for Liu’s characters, a richly imagined collection of low-level gangsters, miscreants and economically downtrodden urbanites linked together by a bag full of cash. Stolen in the opening scenes by Xiao Zhang, a driver for local Tony Soprano-wannabe Uncle Liu, the cash — around a million yuan (about £115k) — passes baton-like between the different players, their proximity to it at any given moment accelerating their own collision course with fate.  

Although Quentin Tarantino’s name is often lazily invoked in reference to any post-modern crime movie, there is a distinct Pulp Fiction (1994) feel to the way these stories intersect. Minor characters from one strand become major players in others and conversation rather than action tends to be the driving force of any scene. But while pop culture references to Bruce Lee and Tomb Raider adorn the background scenery of Have a Nice Day (there are references to Fauvism and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster classic The Godfather as well), characters don’t spend their day obsessing over the differences between fast-food franchises or the relative merits of a foot massage. Instead they talk about failed entrepreneurial opportunities, discuss startup capital and compare notes on the success stories of billionaire college drop-outs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and China’s own internet pioneer Jack Ma. This is a film in which characters dissect Brexit and turn crass consumerist analogies into cogent meditations on the nature of freedom. It’s also a film in which an audio clip of Donald Trump on election night elegantly underscores the toxicity of an economic system that enables someone like him to become leader of the free world.

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In this sense Liu has much more in common with fellow Sixth Generation filmmaker Jai Zhang-ke, whose 2014 film A Touch of Sin placed China’s economic revolution under a harsh spotlight via a similarly bleak, brutal and bloody quartet of stories in which the power of money is lorded – with inevitably tragic consequences – over those who don’t have any. Filmmakers from the so-called Sixth Generation emerged in the aftermath of the government crackdown on artistic expression in China following the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Their films are aesthetically rougher and more directly critical of the country than landmark films by such Fifth Generation luminaries as Zhang Yimou —  Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004)  — and Chen Kaige, director of Yellow Earth (1984) and Farewell My Concubine (1993). They’re also more prone to run into censorship problems. Have a Nice Day, for instance, was prevented from making its international debut at an animation festival in France last year because it hadn’t been cleared by the government in Beijing.[1]

Though Liu has admitted that “adjustments were made, content-wise”[2] to the last part of the film, he has also said that he views the finished film as a “landscape painting representing modern China”[3]. Indeed he seems to have got round most of the censorship issues by being clever with his use of symbolism and with his storytelling choices. One plot point involving botched plastic surgery is a damning indictment of the way social status can be improved by marrying a beautiful woman; another, in which a character’s online activity gives him away to a hitman, feels like a sly riff on a country monitoring its citizenry (although, to be fair, that could also function as a critique of any tech company in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal).

Liu is certainly among the more radical Chinese filmmakers right now. His 2010 debut Piercing I, which took aim at the ravages of the 2008 financial crisis, was the first independently produced animation film ever made in China. Have A Nice Day was also produced independently, with Jiu spending three years meticulously hand-drawing and painting every frame himself, then using Photoshop, After Effects and other off-the-shelf software to bring it to the big screen.[4] But while the style may seem basic — the animation is blocky and the shots are often static — that adds to its effectiveness. Nobody is having a nice day here, yet life trundles on regardless, and that’s the point: the platitudinous title is merely another symbolic kick in the teeth. 

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic, The Scotsman

[1] Stephen McDonell, 'Have A Nice Day, Chinese gangster animation, blocked in France’, BBC, 14 June 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-china-blog-40270158

[2] Liu Jian, quoted by Beckett Mufson, ‘It Took This Artist Three Years to Animate his Wild Chinese Gangster Move’, Vice, 7 February 2018 https://www.vice.com/en_uk/art...

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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