“Where there might be inconsistency in structure, a consistency of vision more than makes up for it.
by Ken Bakely
The animation style of Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day is sharp and almost simplistic. Objects are neatly delineated with thick, comic book-like outlines. Surface detail – from stationary objects to human faces – is minimal and smooth, cast against darkened backgrounds. Such stark imagery immediately sets us up for the kind of project that Liu has created. He animated most of the film himself, and under that incredibly singular setup, brings a broad glossary of references that range from the stylistic influences of Quentin Tarantino’s work, to an intentionally threadbare plot setup that serves as a launch point for complex observations on economics, politics, and culture. Liu spins a dozen plates in the air, but they all contribute to a tightly wound work of satire and commentary. Each character stretches the limits of their own eccentricity. They’re disparate in background and motivation, but all bound by one throughline: a dizzying quest to locate a stolen bag of mob money in their hardscrabble hometown in southern China.
As we get to know each character, we learn of their own personal and professional goals, but the details of them are so purposefully irrelevant to the plot that they’re essentially hypothetical. Every mission is driven by a desire for achievement for achievement’s sake, or change without a plan to make it. Is it merely coincidental that the reason Xiao Zhang (voice of Changlong Zou) stole the cash in the first place was to help his girlfriend pay for an expensive cosmetic surgery in a foreign country? When trying to recover the money, mafia bosses assign hitmen to do their dirty work. Individuals looking for it pursue their own strategies, but are equally ruthless. Yet the glue that binds them all is the idea of obtaining capital and access as the ultimate sign of accomplishment, completely removed from the notion of having a sincere, cohesive plan on what to do with the money in the first place. The title Have a Nice Day is a perfect encapsulation of the characters’ approach to time and context. It evokes both finite timespans (the film takes place over one eventful evening, but eschews fast cuts or other excessive speeding-up), and a common phrase that can either be sincerely intended in human conversation or scribbled on a receipt after an emotionless financial transaction.
That’s also representative of the dense, multifaceted mounting that’s on display throughout the rest of the movie. It’s no surprise that the money is a MacGuffin, but Liu uses the idea of it and the mad dash for it as the fodder for a wide variety of well-constructed moments. There are intense confrontations that mimic classic crime thrillers, slow conversations under hazy streetlights, and a cutaway journey through the psyche of a character that elaborately mimics the style of a propaganda film. Similarly, the soundtrack is a precisely curated mixture of ambient bass and blaring technopop, accentuating the tonal variance, and matching the color palette’s range from pared-down grays and blues to the occasional burst of violet and orange (additionally, in sequences of physical violence, the animated blood is a bright, neon red). If there’s any persistent flaw in this approach, it might be that Liu moves a little too fast through his varied slate of sequences, almost to the point where it clashes against his otherwise meticulous pacing. But even so, there’s never any doubt that the broad conceptual mosaic it creates is all his own; where there might be inconsistency in structure, a consistency of vision more than makes up for it.
Have a Nice Day never loses sight of the fact that the emotions driving these characters are quite straightforward in their self-interest. The excitement of the illicit money and its large sums give the illusion of an attainable future, but the action still takes place exclusively in the confines of this run-down city. Conversations are idiosyncratic and the conclusions drawn from them are casually misinformed, expanding further on Liu’s implication that their desire for quick fixes and uncritical analysis causes further ruination. The most dangerous attempts at escaping their community’s decay are relentlessly pursued, no matter how unlikely it is from the outset, how shallow it looks in hindsight, and how many people are hurt in the process. And considering how often scenes of such impulsive desperation and the destruction it leads to are layered between dialogue about ongoings in the wider world, it feels like more than just conveying the year in which the film is set when references to the passage of Brexit are brought up in conversation, and a radio newscast informs a character that in the United States, Donald Trump has just been elected President.