Although you’d never know it from the film’s wry, deadpan screenplay or grungy, gorgeously rendered hand-drawn animation, Chinese writer-director-animator Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day is only the filmmaker’s second film. Already a master stylist with a knack for the type of hipster cool, slow-burn storytelling that rivals the early work of indie auteurs like Jim Jarmusch and Wong Kar-wai, Jian has been wowing audiences and racking up awards for Day at film festivals around the globe since it premiered at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. And now, at long last, Day is available on inflight entertainment screens around the globe as well, and fans of indie-minded animation are in for a treat.
A sly, crime world parable about the sociopolitical culture shock currently rippling through rural China masquerading as a punk rock, follow-the-money thriller, Day is full of surprises from start to finish. And though Jian borrows liberally from filmmakers like Tarantino, Scorsese, Kieslowski, and even Richard Linklater – whose rambling, animated Waking Life surely inspired Day’s artfully rumpled aesthetic – Day is also both refreshingly original and culturally specific. And yet by slyly commenting on such universal issues as class, economic strife, education, and the slacker materialism of the young and aimless – with pithy references to everyone from Donald Trump and Bill Gates to Steve Jobs and Facebook – Day could just as easily be set in any small town in America. Or Russia, India, or Brexit-era Britain for that matter. Because, as several of Jian’s characters so rightly point out, things pretty much suck everywhere right now.
Set it a sleepy, heavily industrialized village in modern-day China, Day follows the exploits of a rag-tag group of hustlers and schemers scrambling to get their hands on a bag of cash stolen from the area’s petty, mid-level criminal kingpin, Uncle Liu (Yang Siming) by a glorified delivery boy named Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong). Hoping to use the money to buy his unseen girlfriend “more plastic surgery” after a botched first attempt at facial perfection, Xiao’s actions set off a chain of grisly events as his bag of stolen loot makes the rounds during one long, fateful night.
Most of the characters here seem almost genetically predisposed to making the wrong choices, but Jian’s oddball menagerie of hopelessly chatty small time crooks and their assorted hopes and dreams for a better life are entertaining as hell to watch. Particularly memorable is a pair of greedy, morally ambiguous lowlifes whose dreams of retiring to the country with the stolen cash are illustrated via a rousing, Cultural Revolution-era karaoke number entitled “I Love Shangri-La!” How this thinly veiled comment on China’s rampant materialism got past the government censors is beyond me, but it’s hilarious.
And in the end, even Day’s one somewhat honorable character – who, ironically enough, is a virtuous hitman/butcher named Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng) – is a slave to the global market economy as well, working two jobs so that his daughter can afford to study abroad in America. But like the rest of Day’s colorful gang of hooligans, Skinny too learns the hard way that blind fate is the only real constant in Jian’s fickle, casually cruel universe.
The film’s bloody ending left some critics and film geeks cold, but I personally loved the way it tied up all of Day’s loose ends in one sprawling, Altman-esque clusterfuck on the highway. And while I get that Jian’s style might not be everyone’s cup of tea, even his detractors will have a hard time denying that Day heralds the arrival of a major new talent on the world stage.
Now playing on select Ethiopian Airlines, XiaMen Airlines, and China Southern flights worldwide, Have a Nice Day is also available via streaming at Google Play and YouTube Movies.