'Have A Nice Day' ('Hao ji le'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Bleak animated fare for adults.

Chinese director Liu Jian's second animated feature, which bowed in competition in Berlin, follows several characters in an anonymous town chasing a bag of stolen money.

A big bag of money causes a whole lot of trouble in Have A Nice Day, the second animated feature from Chinese writer-director Liu Jian. Like his 2010 debut, Piercing 1, the story is set in a bleak contemporary town in southern China and the style of the animation — with its ligne-claire approach and quite stark realism in the backdrops and characters — feels distinctly different from more mainstream Asian animated fare. The novelty here is the forceful introduction of genre elements, with the film actually name-checking The Godfather trilogy and some of its characters ending up with blood on their faces — or worse.

One of the last titles to be shown in competition at the Berlinale, this short but fascinating feature, running just 75 minutes, should parlay its high-profile selection into more festival play and possibly some theatrical action, though it nonetheless will remain an art-house specialty item for connoisseurs.

The film opens with a quote from Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection, about how it’s spring in cities even where any sign of nature seems to have been eradicated by man. Like the film’s innocent-sounding title, the exact tone and meaning of this quote will have evolved by the time the end credits roll.

The basic premise is a simple one: Xiao Zhang (voiced by Zhy Changlong) works as a lowly driver compelled to turn to crime and steal a million yuan (about $150,000) to pay for a trip to South Korea for his girlfriend to “repair” a botched cosmetic surgery intervention. (A variation on the basic thinking of the protagonist of Dog Day Afternoon.) But Xiao isn’t really the protagonist of the film. Instead, Liu looks at various characters connected to Xiao and/or the bag of money he steals in the opening, including a hitman (Ma Xiaofeng), a gangster (Yang Siming) and a mysterious man (Cao Kou) who has a pair of glasses that provide a kind of X-ray vision.

Like in any good genre yarn, there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns as characters run into each other — often quite literally and sometimes even with their vehicles — in the desperate hope of getting their hands on the money. Events occasionally turn bloody but most of the actual violence is kept off-screen; a dark sense of humor and some well-timed if unexpected arrivals keep things from becoming too gloomy.

In the end, though, the bag of money is just an excuse to observe these characters in their natural habitat, and in that sense, the film paints a rather bleak picture of life in an anonymous town in contemporary China. At one point, Trump is heard on the radio congratulating Hillary Clinton on a hard-fought campaign, placing the proceedings firmly in the here and now. The moment works as a reality check, reminding audiences that the film might be animated and follow certain genre conventions but it does still take place in a world very similar to our own.

Some characters dream of a Western education, while others point out that the Zuckerbergs and Gateses of this world are college dropouts, raising the question of why one would pursue further education at all? A similarly defeatist attitude can be sensed percolating underneath the material throughout.

An unexpected colorful musical interlude that uses bright and shiny Mao-era propaganda posters as a source of inspiration for its visuals might initially seem to offer a dream-like break from the film’s dull-hued palette. But because it so conspicuously stands out as something fake and unattainable, the sequence finally only helps to underline the dreariness of the characters’ reality. 

Production companies: Nezha Bros. Pictures Company, Lejoy Animation Studio
Voice cast: Zhu Changlong, Cao Kai, Liu Jian, Yang Siming, Shi Haitao, Ma Xiaofeng, Xue Feng, Zheng Yi, Cao Kou, Zhu Hong
Director-screenwriter: Liu Jian
Producers: Yang Cheng, Liu Jian, Lynne Wang
Director of photography: Lin Shan
Production designer: Lai Baoer
Music: The Shanghai Restoration Project
Editor: Minbing Xiaoliu

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Memento Films International/Edko Films

75 minutes