‘Have a Nice Day’ Film Review: Chinese Animated Noir Is a Wry, Cool Money Chase

Steeped in the realities of modern China, Liu Jian’s bleak pop thriller about a sought-after bag of cash is a gritty animated gem

Nobody proffers a smiley face in Liu Jian’s animated neo-noir “Have a Nice Day”: they’re too busy worrying, scheming, or being assaulted. The pull of money can do that.

A deadpan crime story with eccentric and fantastical touches, and a healthy sense of the absurd, “Have a Nice Day” makes a bold argument for Chinese animation as a fertile outlet for exploring the country’s more desperate, constricted lives, and the choices these people make.

The set-up is like something the great caper farceur Donald E. Westlake would have conjured for a disparate constellation of characters: a bag of money that changes hands and brings out some keen and not-so-keen survival instincts in its various pursuers and guardians. But the tone is very much Liu’s own, a mix of realism and punky attitude, with a punishing greyness to the animation that gives the whole shebang the feeling of a cosmic joke.

Liu even opens with a bleakly insightful quote from Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” that describes a man-ravaged world where, nevertheless, “spring was spring.” Over an ominously shuffling piano-drum theme, Jian deals out a selection of milieus depicting a small southern Chinese town of tatty storefronts, forgotten streets, and general urban blight mixed with busy development. There’s a halting flatness to the animation, but the detail work is painterly in its attention to chipped walls, beat-up roads, and trashed passageways.

The frames are also hauntingly still; the only movement might be a flickering light or a trail of smoke from a cigarette or factory. The art-trained Liu, who is both a painter and a photographer, and who made his first hand-drawn feature “Piercing” entirely by himself, seems to have found a way to evoke both aesthetics in his images.

The first character we meet is construction site worker Xiao Zhang (voiced by Zhu Changlong) as he waits to drive a man with a travel tote full of bills. But en route with the precious cargo, Xiao pulls a knife and takes the money, leaving the bag man behind and a waiting gangster named Uncle Liu (Yang Siming) mighty unhappy. Uncle Liu doesn’t seem like the to-be-trifled-with sort either, since our first taste of him is overseeing the violent beating of a childhood pal-turned-artist, the whole time reminiscing about the pair’s youthful exploits.

While the gangster deploys a butcher-assassin named Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng) to find his stolen million yuan, Xiao checks into a railway hotel, then at a deserted Internet café contacts his girlfriend to let her know they now have the money to get her reconstructive plastic surgery in South Korea. Waiting to intercept him, however, is Yellow Eye (Cao Kou), who noticed the young man with the abundant cash earlier at a noodle shop, and decided this was divine intervention in the form of readily available startup money for his aspirations as an inventor.

But as the confrontations, thieving, re-thieving, mishaps and fortuitous accidents continue, Liu Jian makes it painfully clear that, for as many intersecting characters he can create in his coolly conceived thriller, the real protagonist is maybe an intangible mindset of economic despair in modern China: the dream for something better stunted by the cold reality of arbitrary luck and stumbling opportunity. (The bag of money, then, is hardly a MacGuffin, but maybe a kind of elusive, inanimate antagonist.)

In that respect, Liu’s grimly quirky chase-for-gold movie is of a piece with other financial-hardship crime films making their mark in China, from Lin Yang’s “Blind Shaft” to Jia Zhengke’s “A Touch of Sin” and Johnny Ma’s “Old Stone.” The construct may generate suspense, but the filmmaker’s careful remove almost demands a thoughtfulness about the world being lived in.

Some of the details in Liu’s dryly played narrative bear out the theme of the twin allures of materialism and commercialism: Westernized cultural touches like a Hollister T-shirt, new sneakers, a “Fast and Furious” poster, references to Steve Jobs and “The Godfather.”

There’s even a trippy reverie one character has in an elevator in which her dream to use the money to go to a resort called Shangri-La with her long-haired boyfriend is rendered as a candy-colored Karaoke video interlude in the style of Chinese Communist art. Another character, meanwhile, sees freedom as levels of shopping: farmers’ market versus supermarket versus online. And for that politically relevant touch, there’s a moment when Trump’s voice is heard on a radio.

The vectors of hope, fear and desperation ultimately must clash, though, and in a movie where left-for-dead doesn’t mean out of the picture, that means a conclusion not quite conclusive, but true to form for a pulpy yarn that takes place under portentous skies. It doesn’t give anything away to say there’s a dark sense of humor in giving the last word to a shot of a bag of money partly open, its bounty of pinkish, Mao-emblazoned 100-yuan notes being rained on.

“Have a Nice Day” may not be so nice, but it signifies a step forward for Chinese animation in filmmaker Liu Jian.