Have a Nice Day

D+ Animated crime film
Written and directed by Jian Liu

Imagine Pulp Fiction, done in limited animation, but without the clever dialog, the wit, or the sense of redemption. That’s pretty much what you get with Jian Liu’s cartoon noir, Have a Nice Day. And frankly, it’s not enough.

The movie starts with a quote from Tolstoy, in Chinese and English, about the unnatural ugliness of cities. That seems appropriate. Have a Nice Day is set in a very ugly, unnamed Chinese city. The people in it are ugly too, most of them physically, and all of them ethically.

A desperate young man steals a large cache of cash, causing a criminal free-for-all. Crooks and bad apples from all over town set out to get their hands on the loot. The film follows several of them, and occasionally they cross each other’s paths. There’s little character development or rooting interest. The story is confusing, brutal, and pointless.

At first glance, there seems to be no reason why Liu chose to animate Have a Nice Day rather than shoot it in live action. There’s no fantasy or science fiction here, and everything on the screen could be easily filmed. The cheap, extremely limited animation makes the characters even less interesting than the script allowed. Faces rarely move from one emotion or thought to another. Many shots are completely static drawings, or almost static, with maybe a wisp of cigarette smoke to remind you that you’re not watching a semi-abstract painting.

Perhaps Liu chose to animate because he is an animator, and he preferred to use the tools he knew. And in some scenes, the amination – or perhaps I should say the illustrations – help create the mood of a dirty, corrupt, evil city. Liu has a knack for drawing your eyes to one particular object by making it the only thing moving in the frame. In one of the film’s most effective visual tricks, we see a group of perfectly still, grotesque, laughing faces behind a mob boss who’s talking to his victim. Because of the limited animation elsewhere in the movie, I assumed that they were supposed to be real people watching the cruel scene. I eventually realized that they were a painting behind the boss.

Have a Nice Day paints a world where no one is happy, and everyone understands that getting their hands on the loot will not change that irrefutable fact. But darkness and despair have become clichés that don’t really work anymore – or at least not without interesting characters or a unique point of view. Atmosphere, on its own, just isn’t enough.

But Have a Nice Day has one good thing in its favor: It’s short. You’ll only have to suffer through it for 77 minutes.