The second feature from Liu Jian (“Piercing I”) presents a series of interlocking tales in a pulpy display of desperate characters, all drawn together by a typical device — money — and the reckless behavior caused by it. The vivid palette of Liu’s animation conveys a comic book-like exuberance to the proceedings, but the underlying socioeconomic frustration is very real.
The movie opens with a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s “Resurrection,” in which the author recalls that even in a reckless world filled with unhappy people, “spring was still spring, even in this town.” Liu takes that stance as a starting point for a grimy daylong tale centered on a young man Xiao Zhang, who steals a bag containing 1 million yen from mob boss Uncle Liu, setting off a series of violent encounters across this sleepy ghost town.
The ensuing noir-soaked fairy tale is a gorgeous snapshot of competing interests. The story circulates between several characters: Xhao Zhang frantically attempts to arrange for his fiancée to receive plastic surgery from the confines of a drab internet cafe, but must contend with the advances of a hammer-wielding hitman named Yellow Eye. Simultaneously, a mostly silent killer who moonlights as a butcher and goes by Skinny plans his own scheme for tracking down the thief. Young siblings Ann Ann and her brother Liu, punk rockers who work night shifts at a bar, catch wind of the opportunity and see it as an opportunity to realize their dreams of pop stardom. As the pieces pile up, the ensemble converges — just a little too neatly — for a series of tense encounters in a drab hotel room and against the backdrop of a rainy night.
But credibility isn’t the biggest issue for a movie that traffics so heavily in allegory. As the story moves forward, it’s increasingly clear that “Have a Nice Day” aims to direct its layered sociological approach toward overarching feelings of aspiration and disgust with conditions of daily life in modern China, as well as a developing envy for the Western world. The elusive bag of money, one of the oldest MacGuffins in the book, mainly serves as a motivating device for a much bigger picture. Liu has evidently gone great lengths to ensure the immediacy of his narrative, sampling audio from Donald Trump’s election-night victory speech on the radio, spicing up a conversation about global economics with talk of Brexit and Mark Zuckerberg.
The sense of isolation from these forces, and the ensuing absurd crime plot that unfurls as a result, turns “Have a Nice Day” into a mesmerizing portrait of despair and the capitalist instincts created by it. Mixing the dreaminess of Wong Kar-Wai with early Tarantino vibes, “Have a Nice Day” repurposes these precedents in an exciting new context. Not every mini-arc holds the same degree of intrigue — young punks are inevitably more endearing than stone-faced hitmen — and the movie occasionally suffers from a listless quality as it lingers in a series of meandering conversations. But it remains a markedly fresh window into modern China, told with a hypnotic visual style, spiked with lively pop songs, and a winding plot that never sags into predictability.
The payoff of “Have a Nice Day” arrives in a terrific climax filled with speeding cars and bullets, as if all the pent-up aggression of the previous hour has erupted at once. The outcome leaves the future uncertain, but Liu ends on a provocative note, implying that every struggle is motivated by the possibility of a happy ending, and envisioning that outcome is sometimes as close as one can get to the real deal. At the same time, the collision of interests throughout the movie suggests that a society in which everyone’s competing for the same unobtainable goal will always be defined by letdowns.
“Have a Nice Day” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.