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'Have a Nice Day' is a grimly absorbing gangster thriller set in contemporary China

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Nasty, brutish and 77 minutes short, the animated neo-noir "Have a Nice Day" conjures a bleak vision of contemporary small-town China where desperation, greed and stupidity hold sway. In this acrid, accomplished second feature from the Chinese writer-director Liu Jian ("Piercing I"), a reckless act of theft begets a whirlwind of controlled chaos, the violent impact of which barely disturbs the clean, sharp lines and static compositions of Liu's precisely drawn images.

This visual restraint -- at times, a rising plume of smoke or a flashing neon sign might be the only source of movement -- is much to the movie's point. Nothing here will change or improve; these gangster lowlifes and their altogether pathetic fortunes are fixed from the first scene. This is more or less what happens, Liu seems to be saying, when the tough realities of economic deprivation brush up against the elusive promise of prosperity in a relentlessly materialist society.

The director's poker-faced approach short-circuits any glee or surprise we might derive from the bumbling criminal shenanigans on display. In an unnamed southern Chinese town, a construction worker, Xiao Zhang (voiced by Zhu Changlong), steals a bag of loot from local crime boss Uncle Liu (Yang Siming) to pay for a redo of his girlfriend's botched plastic surgery. Uncle Liu is none too pleased with this development, not least because of the interruption it poses: We first meet him as he oversees the bloody beating of an old friend, while reminiscing at length about their childhood misadventures.

Uncle Liu pauses midtorture long enough to hire a butcher-cum-hit man named Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng) to track down Xiao, setting off a pursuit that moves from a rundown internet cafe to a seedy motel room. Along the way, the money falls quickly if temporarily into the hands of Yellow Eyes (Cao Kou), who yearns to realize his long-cherished dream of becoming an inventor. But dreams have no place in this grimly deterministic vision; at best they go unfulfilled, and at worst they lead their dreamers fatally astray.

In the movie's most corrosive and outlandish sequence, a woman (Zhu Hong) yearns to escape to a resort called the Shangri-La; her vision of paradise takes the form of a colorful karaoke sequence, studded with old-school Communist imagery. It's a cruel reminder of how thoroughly these characters' aspirations and fantasies have been conditioned by their surroundings, and its tacky brightness stands in contrast to the gloomy realism that is Liu's aesthetic signature.

"Have a Nice Day" isn't above signaling the timeliness of its story or the eclecticism of its inspirations. It kicks off with a lengthy quotation from Tolstoy's "Resurrection," suggesting a not-so-tenuous connection between the social corruption of pre-revolutionary Russia and the moral rot of 21st century global capitalism. Passing mentions of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Brexit, plus the sound of Donald Trump's voice emanating from a car radio, establish a roughly present-day time frame, but the movie's chatty, erudite characters also drop references to Fauvist painting and Buddhist philosophy.

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Liu gives you plenty to listen to, but don't forget to look: Beyond the formulaic thriller plotting and the showy verbiage, it's the movie's richly textured vision of urban decay that stays with you. From these painterly still shots of littered streets and graffiti-strewn buildings, there arises a bone-chilling sense of despair that somehow leaves you just shy of depressed. You may have seen some of the worst that humanity has to offer, but you've seen it through the fresh, distinct and clarifying vision of a gifted new artist.

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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