Greed wins out in the end.
As China continues to rapidly modernize, it’s massive population grows ever more acclimated to the fleeting thrills of getting and spending, furthering the awkward national transition from values-focused communalism to self-centered capitalist excess. Meanwhile, with the United States carrying out a slow-motion faceplant on the international scene, the country seems intent on picking up the mantle of domineering world power, expanding its influence and holdings abroad. This has only deepened the cognitive dissonance playing out at home, a conflicted ennui long chronicled by political filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, Wang Bing and Zhao Dayong. Last year’s stunning documentary Behemoth captured the physical cost of this evolution. Have A Nice Day does the same for the moral, the drive for personal success clashing with the ingrained demands of filial obligation and ethical responsibility.
It’s not giving much away to say that greed wins out in the end. Crafting a punchy animated parable steeped in scuzzy atmosphere and scabrous humor, director Jian Liu depicts a dreary, rain-soaked provincial China as a wasteland of brand logos and pop culture icons, their pictures posted up in helter-skelter fashion. Unfolding as a sort of crime yarn update of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, the story mostly concerns misbegotten pairs of characters loitering around low-rent locales, bemoaning their lack of mobility. A scruffy, static animation style, at times reminiscent of something snatched from a late-night mid ‘90s MTV programming block, furthers this sense of stuckness. It also fits the story, which concerns a large sum of money lifted from local mob boss Uncle Liu (Siming Yang). Liu takes time out from torturing an old friend – an artist who’s run afoul of his syndicate for reasons never explained – in order to field calls about the hunt for the cash, growing increasingly perturbed as the situation spirals steadily out of control.
Within the film’s sodden setting, an incipient global malaise inspired by the expanding idiocies of Brexit and Trump, both directly referenced herein, dovetails with a deep homegrown hopelessness. Still, sleepy backdrops, sitting like matte paintings behind the sparse, slow movement of the action in the foreground, heighten feelings of immobility. Upon these is repeatedly imprinted the visual motif of a car zooming past, its careening motion clashing with the sessility of the scene behind it, exemplifying technological progress speeding out of control, while personal improvement remains enmired. Where frenzied widescreen spectacles like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World once lampooned the nouveau-riche aspirations of mid-century America, Have A Nice Day counters such frenetic spasticity with a drugged, somnolent vibe, one in which half-formed characters, weaned on violent pop-culture and hollow motivational rhetoric, amble about like drowsy bloodhounds on the sharp scent of newly available riches.
In this twisted environment, it’s fitting that the thief – a young, low-ranking driver known as Xiao Zhang (Changlong Zhu) – seeks not just to pay not for his girlfriend’s plastic surgery, but to afford a trip to South Korea to fix a botched operation. The first attempt has rendered her a deformed shut-in. The film’s proliferation of paired characters suggests both a survival tactic and the lingering remnants of real human connection, although the quickness with which they betray each other leans more to the former than the latter. In a world in which the primary systems of belief have been exposed as a sham, the only thing left is to fend for yourself, a bankrupt state of affairs which invariably leads this wide web of shady figures to ruin.