You’ve heard this setup before: A decent man mixed up with indecent men steals cash from them, and suddenly it seems the whole damn world is hot on his trail trying to recover the misappropriated goods (if not for the indecent men, then for themselves). That tried and-true synopsis sums up Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day cleanly, if only because the synopsis is all there is to it. Simplicity can be a virtue in storytelling, but Have a Nice Day suffers from an excess of it, being a slight movie in both length and substance.
The length is a mercy, but the substance is a frustration. Have a Nice Day is at its best when Jian pauses the search for Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong), a lowly driver working for a mob boss named Uncle Liu (Yang Siming), and lets the movie’s background characters talk about life in southern China. Late in the movie, two men discuss the meaning of true freedom, one of them defining it through levels of consumerism: There’s farmer’s market freedom, supermarket freedom, and online shopping freedom, which put together doesn’t sound at all like freedom but rather a crippling dependence on capitalism. (In keeping with the theme of capitalist anxieties, Skinny, a button man voiced by Ma Xiaofeng, listens to Donald Trump congratulating Hillary Clinton on her 2016 presidential campaign via his van’s radio as he sets out to crack skulls.)
But these moments never last for very long, and the characters they’re centered around never get fleshed out as people, even though they linger as buttressing corroborative details for Jian’s plot. You hardly mind that his digressions kneecap the film’s momentum, which builds to a bloody climactic confrontation between all parties searching for Uncle Liu’s money that’s best described as perfunctory. These inertial shifts feel like a blessing Jian doesn’t take advantage of, which is a shame: A crime film about gangsters and gangster-adjacent types yearning for dreams either dashed or in stasis, occasionally interspersed with bursts of violence, sounds fascinating enough. For fairness’ sake, Jian keys us into the idea of wanting from the very start. He just doesn’t carry that idea to a logical, satisfying conclusion.
We’re aware, for instance, that Xiao Zhang, described by Jian’s supporting cast as an honest man, takes Uncle Liu’s cool million to pay for corrective plastic surgery for his fiancé after a botched cosmetic operation. In the margins, we hear characters converse about what they’d do with the kind of capital Xiao Zhang has at his disposal: They want to build their own startups, establish restaurants, or in one case pack up their lives and move to Shangri-La to spend their days growing vegetables, and raising pigs. It’s a great hook, but the asides lead nowhere. If you relieved Have a Nice Day of its digressions, you’d lose half of its running time and all of its significance.
So little of Jian’s narrative registers that the film ultimately boils down to tedious genre riffing. His influences are myriad: Characters name-check The Godfather aloud, but there’s more Tarantino and Ritchie in here than Coppola, a pastiche that never quite solidifies into a vision that’s unique to Jian, which just adds to the film’s puzzling lethargy. There’s a stillness to the animation that suggests we’re looking at a photomontage instead of a motion picture. Animation should express. It should move. Have a Nice Day just feels inert. Jian stuffs his images with detail that lends the film visual texture, but none of that detail comes to life. Grant that there isn’t much life to live in his setting of choice, and that his characters are content waiting for their best life to just happen to them. That’s appropriate for the text itself, but metaphor at the cost of art is too high a price to pay.
Director: Liu Jian
Writer: Liu Jian
Starring: Zhu Changlong, Cao Kai, Liu Jian, Yang Siming, Shi Haitao, Ma Xiaofeng, Xue Feng, Zheng Yi
Release Date: January 26, 2018
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.