Fantasia 2017: Have A Nice Day
Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day, playing at the Fantasia International Film Festival, is a visually minimalist, atmospheric, animated crime drama flavored with a dash of dark comedy. The macguffin du jour: an unassuming bag filled to the brim with one million yuen (roughly $150,000 USD). Pursuing this prize: a cast of diverse, yet banal criminals. On its own, this story is hardly remarkable. After all, how many stories of low-lifes chasing monetary salvation do we need? But, what Jian lacks in narrative innovation, he distinguishes through atmosphere.
As the open credit scrawl rolls across the screen, mundane shots of refuse-filled, neon-lit alleyways shuffle in to introduce us to the narrative’s world. This unspecified southern Chinese city, even with the bare-bones animation style and muted color palette, feels distinctly grimy. Piles of trash clog the arteries of the city and even if it’s a particularly well-trodden visual metaphor, it helps build out the themes of criminality beyond salvation. This world, Jian wants us to understand, is a world that is not just going down the toilet, but rather it has long been wallowing at the bottom of the sewer. One of the most comically depressing ways Jian depicts the decrepitude of this world is to remind us of the election of sitting U.S. President Donald Trump via radio news. To non-Chinese-speaking American viewers, the sole moment of the English punctuating this, otherwise, entirely Chinese language film is to remind us that Trump won nine months ago.
Have a Nice Day, unfortunately, fails almost as much as it succeeds. For every brilliant moment of world-building and atmosphere, there is another awkward scene transition or cute, but insubstantial reference to better movies like Reservoir Dogs. In fact, Jian seems to adore Tarantino’s filmography so greatly that he includes not just one, but multiple direct homages to the famed director’s works. Midway through the film, as two characters are on their way to an apartment, Jian enters a comically over-the-top animated sequence that recalls a much more effective sequence in Kill Bill. But, where that film used its animation to highlight the violence on-screen while curbing the grotesqueness of it all, Jian’s aside feels out of place. It makes sense given that it’s borne of the imagination of the characters, but it jars the pacing of the sequence.
Yet, perhaps Have a Nice Day’s most egregious flaw is that it fails to escalate the stakes of the plot in any substantial way. I can’t help but feel like this film is missing the same energy that propels similar films like Pulp Fiction and Fargo. Where those films spent time investing us in interesting characters and an absurd world with a pace that allowed us to soak it all in, Have a Nice Day both slows down and cuts away from scenes that need less and more time to develop respectively. Though the characters are quirky enough, few of their motivations are fleshed out in ways sufficient to endear themselves to us. One revelation late in the film helps ameliorate this problem a bit, allowing us to sympathize with a character who, up until that point, lacked any real motivation. But, this is the exception to the rule.
Liu Jian’s latest may have a phenomenal sense of atmosphere and a spartan animation style that reflects the mundanity of the character motivations, but when its characters feel so barebone, it becomes difficult to recommend the film even for its triumphs. I certainly don’t recommend against seeing the film and, at 77 minutes, it is hardly long enough to grow too tedious, but this is a film that could have been so much better with more fleshed out characters.