Jian Liu’s Have a Nice Day begins with a montage that’s illustrative of this animated noir’s laconic flow. Set to “Dark Horse” by the Shanghai Restoration Project—an electronic duo from Brooklyn with a fondness for interpreting Chinese folk and jazz traditions—the sequence homes in, staccato-like, on the run-down dimensions of a city in southern China and immerses us in everyday human life (at one point, the flashing of a neon sign appears to groove to the beats of the song). Throughout, the viewer is effectively synchronized to the essential rhythm that bespeaks the determination of the various hoods, gangsters, and eccentrics who inhabit this locale.
Lawlessness is quickly understood to be the norm here, but as Have a Nice Day unfolds it becomes clear from everyone’s single-minded pursuit of money that they’re all victims of rampant capitalism. Jian sees this pursuit as the essential definition of people’s characters. Cynical, maybe, but that’s the point. The film’s pale-hued, Flash-like animation is abundant in detailed backgrounds that make the characters stand out like placards, allowing for Jian’s critique of modern China to land with maximum force. Jian understands that a society that puts a premium on cash flow is, not unlike widespread technology, capable of both connecting and isolating people.
In the film, easy money is represented by a mob boss’s one million renminbi, which is stolen by a lowly driver, Zhang Xiao (Zhu Changlong), so he can travel to South Korea, a place symbolic of unlimited choices, with his girlfriend to fix her botched plastic surgery. (Their relationship is defined only by money, and she’s tellingly left off screen, which is where much of the film’s violence also occurs.) The mob boss and a skillful hitman lead the hunt for the money, but also on Zhang’s tail are average citizens who catch wind of the crime. These lone-wolf characters live in a kind of solipsistic vacuum, capable only of talking about the economic status for which they strive. Everyone seems to bond only on a superficial level, as their mutual interests, in such things as American business and billionaires, are indeed superficial at best.
Throughout Have a Nice Day, Jian also manages to deconstruct the tropes of the crime film, placing an emphasis on the long and arduous processes that necessitate finding a proverbial needle in a haystack. Almost everyone here is a working drone who’s existence feels digitally imprinted; the criminals tracking the stolen money spend much of their time combing through computers that Zhang has used. This focus on the tedious aspects of a job allows the film to retain the lived-in quality that the character animations appear to almost resist. In the end, the idea that the characters think they can escape the monotony of a working routine can be seen as a contributing factor in their nagging and narrow-minded feeling that money is the sole agent of change and satisfaction. In Jian’s China, capitalism is the new drug.