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China’s Animated Underbelly

A Film Review of ‘Have a Nice Day’

A tousled-haired young man in a third-tier Chinese city is desperate to fix the botched plastic surgery done on his fiancée’s face. At knifepoint, he steals a satchel of one million yuan from a local gangster, setting off a chain-reaction of greed and brutal violence between strangers in Have a Nice Day, the first Chinese animated feature to screen in a major international film festival.

Writer and director Liu Jian’s meticulously drawn and grittily observed underworld thriller premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2017 and was yanked that Spring from the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France (under pressure from Chinese officials). No matter how allergic you are to watching subtitled animation, do not miss this film in New York on Friday, January 26. (Thanks, Strand Releasing.) If you’re a language student, there is no better film in recent years to teach you current, uncensored, ripe street Chinese, spat out as punctuation to close-quarters combat.

“What a weirdo!” — A scene from Liu Jian’s “Have a Nice Day.”

Xiao Zhang, the thief with the loot, stops at a local Internet bar, the omnipresent smoky establishments that dot China, where mostly young men play first-person shooter games into the wee hours. Zhang alerts his convalescing fiancée to their good fortune: “Let’s go to South Korea for plastic surgery.” Zhang’s instant message leaves a digital trace of his whereabouts. In a heavily monitored state where more than 650 million Chinese are easily tracked through their mobile phones, mobster Uncle Liu employs the tools of the trade to set Skinny, a sharp-dressed butcher-turned-hitman, on Zhang’s trail.

Simultaneously, a motley crew of characters worthy of Tarantino gets wind of the missing money and converges on the railway hotel where Zhang is hiding out. There’s the busty blue-haired, crucifix-wearing Ann Ann and her boyfriend, Wu Lidu, a mullet-sporting thug who rides his motorcycle at full throttle. (The two ride up the drab hotel elevator imagining a musical interlude that pokes enormous fun at Chinese propaganda songs—Ann Ann and Wu are heroes of their own Chinese dream, escaping on Technicolor tractors with the money to Shangri La). Also chasing the cash is restaurant proprietor and amateur inventor Yellow Eye—nicknamed for the “VR Infrared Invincible X-Ray Glasses” he designed, wears, and uses to see the contents of Zhang’s satchel.

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One after another, each party chasing the money ends up in hotel room 301 (the only one occupied), fights with, and subsequently knocks out each of his predecessors to the scene. The money changes hands and the violence escalates from chloroform to fists, from mallets to cleavers to ragefully driven automobiles.

Movements from Internet café to hotel, from road to roadside, and back again are punctuated with desolate scenes of dark grey skies through which a steeple adorned with a neon cross sometimes shines. The music of the Shanghai Restoration Project lends the Have a Nice Day soundtrack a haunting air that adds to the sense of loneliness and longing at the center of the story about Chinese disconnected from one another in merciless competition to get ahead at any cost. Director Liu draws a tender moment between gangster Uncle Liu and his mentor, the capo of the gang, Brother Biao. They meet at the Buddhist temple where Biao is contemplating spending the rest of his life as a monk. “If Brother Biao retires, how will we all eat?” Uncle Liu asks.

In the world of Have a Nice Day, existential moments occur between flashes of angry, vicious behavior. The world is as real-feeling to those viewers who’ve ever left big-city China for the interior, and as surreal as the best of the Hernández brothers’ magic-realist comic Love and Rockets of the 1980s—to which Liu owes a strong stylistic debt. Standing over an open car trunk containing the bloodied body of an artist they’ve beaten within an inch of his life for sleeping with Uncle Liu’s woman, Liu and his right-hand man, A De, take a moment to debate the origin of select inspirational quotes from captains of American industrial innovation. Which American billionaire said what? Was it Jobs, Zuckerberg, or Gates? They wonder aloud then slam the trunk and hit the road, only to stop again soon to beat up the driver of a Range Rover, just for being flashy rich.

The lower down the food chain we go, the debates take place on a higher plane. A construction site security guard struggling to support his pregnant wife muses aloud to a friend over a simmering hot pot, “Who do you think is more powerful, Buddha or God?” The answer that comes back is a darkly comic condemnation of the “freedom” afforded by a massive online shopping culture that Chinese today associate with freedom of choice. They can choose brands and products, can even choose to worship whom they like, within some limitations, but none has much say at all in the governance of their daily lives.

Which makes the twist that only sunk in upon a second viewing of Have a Nice Day all the more bizarre. The whole film takes place the day and night after Donald J. Trump is elected President of the United States. A sound bite of Trump’s election night victory speech, in which he congratulated Hillary Clinton on a hard fight, plays across the car radio, causing the fedora-wearing hitman Skinny to chortle as he drives through the night after Zhang. Who’s to say if that little, knowing laugh was the director’s hint that underworld figures in China, half a world away from American participatory democracy, must have recognized that everything went topsy-turvy when a real-estate billionaire of questionable moral mettle took power in the U.S.A., the place where so many protest, so often and so freely, about the role of the law in society.

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Conspicuously absent from the mayhem of Have a Nice Day are any Chinese authorities. No cops are called, no ambulances scream to the scene of these stabbings, shootings, and vehicular murders. In fact, the only appearance of a uniform of any kind appears on a mannequin of a traffic cop propped up at a slant in the high weeds on the shoulder of the road where Skinny has pulled over to take a leak. He’s hot on Zhang’s trail and, as he relieves himself in the grass, the blank stare of the traffic cop looks on, doing nothing. Skinny turns his head and a missile quietly streaks across the night sky, a symbol of the mighty Chinese state—far, far away from the this lawless interior.

It is all but certain that Have a Nice Day will not screen in China anytime soon. Not legally, anyway, and not under the current leadership. Here in America, we’re lucky to be able to see this unvarnished look at a side of China so seldom revealed, the underbelly last on display on film in Jia Zhangke’s brilliant A Touch of Sin, a cinematic cousin to this animated gem.