Liu Jian’s second feature film Have a Nice Day hones in on the fringes of a city in southern China and a cast of characters caught in between urban modernity and rural tradition.
Liu finds this particular socio-geographical intersection fascinating. “I love to observe and reflect on how people there are living, thinking, and acting,” he says in the press notes about his latest film. “The cultural landscapes of the city’s edges and the people who live there are one of the main sources and inspirations for my work.”
Have a Nice Day is a pop ensemble gangster film that follows the journey of 1 million yuan (roughly $150,000) stolen from a southern Chinese crime boss and pursued by those who yearn for a freedom that they believe only money can bring. Above all, the film centers on the reality for many in China who live outside major metropoles and are affected by unchecked urbanization and industrialization.
After its Berlinale debut last February, Have a Nice Day was pulled from the 2017 edition of the Annecy International Animated Film Festival at the behest of the Chinese government. While it was unclear for some time whether or not the film would ever screen in China, it has now seen the light of day in its home country.
Last November, the film was presented at the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival in Shanxi province, where Liu won the award for best Chinese director. Have a Nice Day then opened in wider Chinese theatrical release on January 12, following “slight adjustments” to the film’s content, according to its producer Yang Cheng. The film barely registered as a blip at the Chinese box office, grossing less than a half-million dollars.
Despite the wary reaction from the Chinese government, Liu Jian denies that politics were ever at the forefront of his artistic impetus. “What I’m concentrating on is characters and their personalities, so any political elements are just incidental to the storyline,” said the director at a Berlinale press conference last February. “This is just about human lives, their emotions, and I think that that’s something much more universal.”
The motley crew of humans, everyday Chinese Joes and Janes, each vies for a chance to better his or her life in some atypical way. A driver steals a million yuan from a crime boss in order to fix his fiancée’s botched plastic surgery so he can please his mother with a timely wedding. Another young woman dreams of using the money to escape to the fictional Shangri-La to become a farmer, as illustrated in a comical karaoke video sequence.
Liu’s characters of choice are caught between the country and the city, between the old-fashioned and the modern. “My main goal is to stay close to them,” the director says, “to observe the lives of the different groups of people, listen to their voices, and then be able to share their stories through filmmaking — showing their happiness, their anger, their sadness, but also their hope.”
To this narrative end, Liu purposefully avoided hiring professional voice actors, who can sound “plastic.” Instead, Liu enlisted the help of friends from the Nanjing area in southern China, where he himself is from, to voice the film’s characters. Besides providing raw and untrained performances, this decision ensured the additional benefit of characters speaking in authentic Nanjing dialect.
The director explains that, while the production process for this film was very much like that of his debut film, Piercing I, which screened at Annecy in 2010, the two works diverge in a key sense. While Liu’s first feature drew more on realism, he made a conscious move toward the absurd and surreal with Have a Nice Day. “The coexistence of realism and symbolism emphasizes the fantasy and the absurdity of these characters and their stories,” says the director. “In modern China, magical realism is happening around us almost every day. Life at times can resemble a surreal comedy that is filled with both jubilance and self-paralysis.”
Liu, who holds a degree in Chinese painting, talks about his animated film in terms that are still very much influenced by his traditional art background. “In my eyes, [Have a Nice Day] as a whole can be seen as a landscape painting representing modern China,” he says. And though it’s far from a picturesque landscape, it’s a thoughtfully delineated one that offers an authentic perspective on contemporary Chinese life.
After opening in New York City on January 26, Have a Nice Day is now in limited release across the United States through Strand Releasing. See the distributor’s website for the full list of dates and locations.