Control Nathan Rabin #68 Have a Nice Day
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column that gives YOU, the kindly, Christ-like, unbelievably sexy Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for all subsequent choices.
Today’s selection, the quietly captivating Chinese animated dark comedy Have a Nice Day has been on the list of Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 selections for quite some time.
When I received the pledge for it I had never even heard of Have a Nice Day. Like most people, I find new things scary and intimidating. The soothingly familiar is so much more appealing; that’s why nostalgia is such a powerful, irresistible force.
Though Have a Nice Day is foreign in the most literal possible sense, being Chinese and all, it nevertheless feels soothingly familiar. Writer, director and animator Liu Jian’s funky cult oddity is a deliberate throwback to the kind of darkly comic, chatty, casually philosophical crime comedies that flourished in the aftermath of the zeitgeist-capturing seismic shock of Resevoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
“Flourishing” may be overly generous, considering how terrible and forgotten most Tarantino knock-offs were, but they certainly did fill video store shelves throughout the 1990s.
Have a Nice Day is full of nods to American culture and American cinema: Liu fills the frame with loving odes to stateside art and detritus, like Rocky and Fast and the Furious 4 posters and a snippet of Donald Trump’s presidential acceptance speech.
Liu Jian is a true one man band. Film is supposed to be an inherently collaborative medium. Not even Neil Breen or Tommy Wiseau can make a movie entirely by themselves. No, they need like-minded souls like Greg Sestero to help them realize their vision.
Have a Nice Day challenges the conventional wisdom that it takes a village, or at least more than one person, to make a satisfying film. Liu Jian didn’t just write and direct this labor of love: he also animated a lot of it himself, a process that took years.
Other people were involved with the making of the film of course. The filmmaker recruited non-actors, primarily friends from the animation world, to provide the voices of the small-time criminals, schemers and sketchy opportunists who make up the film’s cast of characters but in terms of writing, direction and animation, Have a Nice Day reflects one man’s vision to an unusual, if not unprecedented degree.
Have A Nice Day opens with a series of still images of sadly beautiful places in the small southern Chinese town that provides its setting.
These are lonely places, sad places, places haunted by ghosts and despair. They’re melancholy and bittersweet yet also strangely beautiful. If you were to remove the opening and end credits of Have a Nice Day it would barely pass the sixty minute mark that plays a central role in separating short films from feature-length motion pictures.
The film needs lengthy opening and end credit sequences to qualify as a feature film but they serve other purposes as well. In Have a Nice Day the eerily, ineffably compelling opening credits sequence establish a mood of understated beauty, loneliness and eery quiet it sustains throughout, even during intermittent spasms of violence and bloodshed.
Mood is everything in Have a Nice Day. The characters are hardboiled archetypes. The characterization is not terrible deep. The plot doesn’t particularly matter but the film is adept at maintaining a hypnotic tone of dreamy unreality.
The default tone of Tarantino knockoffs was loud, fast and in your face; Have a Nice Day takes an opposite tact. Not only is it aggressively not loud, fast, or in your face; it’s boldly, deliberately slow, quiet and artfully muted.
Have a Nice Day is paced so slowly and so deliberately that I began to wonder if it was really an arty twenty minute short film, the kind that plays before features at Sundance or Cannes, shown at one third the normal speed.
The film’s plot, one of many elements that owe a debt to both Quentin Tarantino and the many filmmakers he ripped off, follows the misadventures of a bag of money desperate small timer Xiao Zhang steals from mobster Uncle Liu to pay for his girlfriend’s botched cosmetic surgery to be repaired.
Uncle Liu is introduced monologuing loftily about history and friendship and betrayal to a longtime family friend who made the deadly mistake of sleeping with the kingpin’s wife, a painter understandably terrified the betrayal will cost him his life.
The powerbroker is deliberate and careful with his words. He is operating from a position of ultimate authority. He has the God-like power of another man’s life in his hands so he can afford to really take his time, to stretch out and be as expansive as he pleases.
Uncle Liu, and the desperate, dangerous men he surrounds himself with are so accustomed to violence that torture, death and kidnapping hold no special novelty for them, no particular urgency. These are men of violence in a violent world; stealing from them is foolish bordering on suicidal.
Xiao is a singularly untalented criminal. He loses ownership of the ill-gotten loot almost as soon as it comes into his possession, leading to a wild goose chase pitting various crooks, eccentrics and dreamers against each in a mad quest for the stolen money.
To say that Have A Nice Day does not follow a straight narrative line would be an understatement. It finds so much time in its slim runtime for distractions like lengthy monologues about the nature of freedom or the essence of human striving that these distractions cease to feel like distractions and become the real essence of the film.
Have a Nice Day is fundamentally about in-between places, about the silence and uncertainty and quiet despair between spasms of violence and criminality. Most Tarantino movies strive desperately to be cool and fail miserably. Have a Nice Day, in sharp contrast, doesn’t have to try at all in order to be effortlessly cool.
The overachieving crime comedy is the antithesis of Disney-style full animation, where every centimeter of the screen moves with organic life and movement. Have a Nice Day is bracingly, boldly static for both an animated movie and a crime comedy. It’s never afraid to simply hold on a still image of some sad, heartbreakingly beautiful tableau for so long that it becomes hypnotic and riveting.
Liu brings a painterly beauty to the images here. The backgrounds in Have a Nice Day are so gorgeous that you can just stare at them, delighting in their beauty.
Have a Nice Day tells a story that we have seen before countless times before in a bracingly new, even revelatory way. Have a Nice Day is all about lingering. Speed up the pace and the mood is gone. The spell is broken. You’re left with just another cliched movie about doomed criminals rather than a film that subverts our expectations in delightful and unexpected ways.
I have seen a whole lot of movies like Have a Nice Day, that share its thematic preoccupations and bleak, fatalistic sense of humor but to its credit I have never seen a movie quite like Have a Nice Day. It’s a goddamn original in a sub-genre overflowing with knock-offs and groaningly derivative wannabes.
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