The banality of criminal life is not a new idea. In fact, Pulp Fiction took this idea and made it a permanent fixture of pop culture, to the point where the film inspired dozens of knock-offs. Few of them were memorable – no one talks about 8 Days in the Valley anymore – and their heyday of the lates nineties is long gone. That is what makes the animated Chinese film Have a Nice Day so surprising: it is explicitly about criminal with banal lives, sharing its DNA with Tarantino and his derivative clones. Director Liu Jian has a flair for striking compositions and deadpan humor, and yet his dark comedy is like his characters: meandering, self-conscious, and uninspired.
This vision of China is drab, to the point where it looks post-apocalyptic. Hardly anyone seems to live here, except a handful of burn-outs, clerks, and gangsters. Our hero – if you can call him that – is Xiao Zhang, a driver for a small gang out of the Jiangsu province. Before the title card, Xiao steals a bag full of money at knifepoint. This gets attention of gang leader, a soft-spoken man who doles out physical punishment like he is imparting wisdom. The gang leader sends a hitman after Xiao, and his professional detachment amuses more than it frightens. Others also get hip to the bag of money: Xiao falls asleep in an internet café, and some stoners snag it for themselves. All these people want this McGuffin, with varying degrees of commitment, and of course it ends with a violent standoff.
All the dialogue is spoken halfheartedly, as if the characters cannot muster the excitement over what a small fortune could provide. The visual style similarly eschews bright colors that we typically see in animated features: Jian opts for drab colors; his characters seem wan and expressionless. The cumulative effect is a little like Beavis and Butthead – including moments where we see what the characters watch on TV – except Jian clearly knows how to frame a memorable image. Each exterior has sharp lines and distinctive architecture, with an on-the-ground feeling of a forgotten place. The impression is that modern China is drab, post-industrial wasteland where people are conditioned to abandon hope as the rust starts to infect their bones.
Have a Nice Day occasionally rises above its modest, borderline depressing milieu. There are few inspired monologues, mostly from the gangsters and hit man. Jian suggests they are more advanced than their lazy stoner counterpart because they are trying to cheat a system that’s rigged against them. The plot can be confusing – the bag of money changes hands a lot – so the twists arrive with the irony we would expect from someone who clearly admires Tarantino and his ilk. Have a Nice Day is a cinematic oddity, insofar its genre and tone are atypical for animation. Unfortunately, what is unique is not necessarily worthwhile.