A bag full of money hits a small southern Chinese city like a Mack truck in Have a Nice Day, a gritty, animated indie film that took director Liu Jian three years to draw and animate, frame by frame. The neo-noir thriller slipped through China's strict censorship apparatus to deliver a punishing look at the bleak economic conditions away from Beijing and Shanghai's Instagram-friendly skylines.
The drama starts when Xiao Zhang, a driver for local Don Corleone–wannabe Uncle Liu, holds a knife to his partner's throat. He drives off with a million yuan (roughly $160,000) and asks his fiancée to run away with him to Korea to fix her botched plastic surgery job. All that stands in the way is the sly, opportunistic inventor Yellow Eye, Uncle Liu's butcher-assassin Skinny, and the greed of every economically downtrodden urbanite Xiao comes across. The bag's journey unfolds in a series of Pulp Fiction–style slices of characters lives—usually talking about how awful their lives are, their personal philosophies, or Steve Jobs—just before the wreckage of the central plot smashes into them.
Jian's style is rooted in his training as a painter at the Nanjing University of the Arts. At times, watching the film feels like viewing a series of works at a gallery show. He'll hold on a nearly static image for ten or so seconds at a time, showcasing the details of hanging meat's marbled flesh, ivy creeping up a crumbling building, or maniacal smiles painted on a wall. These scenes offer a breath in between bursts of lethal action, and flesh out the world in which each person struggles. The city is as much a character as the people in it. The Shanghai Restoration Project's killer soundtrack enlivens these pauses, blending traditional Chinese instruments with hip hop, electronica, and trance.
Like all Chinese films, Have a Nice Day had to be approved by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television. According to LA-based Chinese film producer Robert Cain, this means a committee of 30 or so individuals graded the content on, "Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony." Subjects like sex, violence, religion, gambling, drinking, and, "any hint of criticism of the Communist party, its leadership, or its legitimacy," must be purged from a script before it will be approved.
"I often joke with friends who run their screenplays by me that, according to the government, nothing bad or subversive ever happens in the modern day communist utopia that is China," Cain continues. "If you want to explore any salacious topics, either set them somewhere else, or in some cases, you can set them in the past."
With these restrictions in place, it's easier to make propagandistic films like billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma's absurd Gong Shou Dao than a cathartic story that acknowledges the problems modern Chinese people face. Have a Nice Day is driven by murderous gangsters, failed entrepreneurs, and a woman who wants to escape China to get better plastic surgery in Korea—and that's the version after the changes Liu says censors made to the script.
Liu masks his criticisms in poetry, metaphor, and subtlety, but leaves plenty of clues for anyone who wants to catch his drift. He quotes Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection before the film even starts, describing a land "disfigure[d]" by hallmarks of industrialization like paved roads, pulverized forests, and clouds of smog. We asked him about how he made the film and kept his ideas intact.
VICE: Nobody seems to be having a nice day in this film, so how did you come up with the title, and what does it mean?
Liu Jian: "Have a nice day” is a colloquialism and conveys a kind of optimistic feeling. Regarding the story itself, this title reflects a rather striking contrast. And it is also ironic given that everyone in the film isn’t having even close to, a nice day. But behind this story, I still wanted to express a love of life. Tolstoy’s quote in the beginning and the end credits song both convey this feeling. Perhaps the world is a mess, but life is still worthy of our love.
Tell me about your animation process, from storyboarding to the finishing touches.
Have a Nice Day is a traditional hand-drawn 2D animation. We also used Photoshop, After Effects, and a variety of other general software.
We did a lot of location scouting. We took a lot of pictures. Based on the pictures, we drew the landscape part of the animation. Even the characterization, if there’s any action—like a punch—we will do it, take a picture and draw it based on the pictures.
My favorite artistic style (and in fact my artistic philosophy) is plain and simple. In this film, I use the minor actions and subtle movements of the characters to evoke their emotions, which, along with the vivid landscapes and interiors the characters exist in, constitute the poetic, and in some sense sad and melancholy, aesthetic philosophy of the film. In my eyes, this film as a whole can be seen as a landscape painting representing modern China.
Why did you animate Have a Nice Day almost entirely by yourself?
There is no shortcut when making animation films. The images must be painted one by one.
Where did you get the inspiration for the characters and story?
I live in China, and I wanted to show a picture of contemporary China with my film.
Have a Nice Day is an animated film, but it’s penetrated through and through with the philosophy of realism. The film portrays an urban story that takes place on the edges of a southern Chinese city. There are so many uncertainties and possibilities to be imagined in such a dynamic and lively space as the city’s borderlands. What some might call surrealism is often the reality there, and that is fascinating to me in itself. I love to observe and reflect on how people there are living, thinking, and acting. The cultural landscapes of the city’s edges and the people who live there are one of the main sources and inspirations for my work.
At the same time, the coexistence of realism and symbolism emphasizes the fantasy and the absurdity of these characters and their stories. In modern China, magical realism is happening around us almost every day. Life at times can resemble a surreal comedy that is filled with both jubilance and self-paralysis.
Have a Nice Day is an ensemble film with no specific character who could be described as the main protagonist, unless we say that the bag of money is actually the film’s lead. The movie is set in a town outside of a small southern city in China, and the trends of rapid urbanization and industrialization in the country change a small town like this in vivid as well as in subtle ways. I am fascinated by all of these changes and the people whose lives are affected by these dynamics. My main goal is to stay close to them, to observe the lives of the different groups of people, listen to their voices, and then be able to share their stories through filmmaking—showing their happiness, their anger, their sadness, but also their hope.
How did China's censorship policies affect the production and distribution of the film?
After completing production, all films in China are subject to official censorship. Anything needed to be changed is communicated. Changes to the last part of the film were inevitable and therefore, adjustments were made content-wise. Only after that were we granted permission to distribute publicly. But the producers were responsible for this aspect. I honestly don’t know that much. With regard to myself, seeing my film on the big screen was very important because it was made for the big screen.
Do you have any ideas for what kinds of projects you want to work on next? Will you also animate your next film alone?
My next film is a coming-of-age story about a group of students at an art university in the early 90s, and it will also be a traditional hand-drawn animation. I hope to have a small team, but that’s very difficult to get, so I am prepared to do it all by myself once again.
Have a Nice Day is playing for a limited time in select US theaters, and will be released by MUBI in UK cinemas March 23. Learn more on the official website. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
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