Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 22, 2018 1:05 pm 
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Chinese dark animation from a graphic novel fizzles, but has nice music and landscapes

This nice looking (but basically inanimate) animated film from China is based on a graphic novel, and is attractive for its occasionally beautiful mostly urban landscapes and its pop song score. But it is dull, hard to follow, and without any real payoff. The premise is that a young driver for a gang called Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong) tries to steal one million Renminbi (about $150,000) from his mob boss to pay for his girlfriend to have her botched plastic surgery corrected in South Korea. Of course he isn't going to succeed.

Whiy "inanimate"? Because the scenes contain very little movement. They are nicely drawn in a detailed, linear style, with delicate color tinged in yellow; sometimes the style resembles traditional Japanese prints (the natural landscapes), sometimes generic graphic novels (the people). Often there will be a dingy urban landscape, without movement. Typically, after a few moments a flat vehicle will be moved across and planted in the middle of the scene, like a piece of painted cardboard. Much of the action revolves around people in vehicles, which sometimes collide, causing deaths, while other deaths are inflicted by the seedy characters grappling for position toward the bag of money.

Thomas Humphrey of Screen Anarchy describes the action appealingly. "At almost every stage," he writes, "every character feels expendable and none of their fates are easily predictable, either. So no sooner has Xiao Zhang set out with his precious McGuffin than he is being duped by a maverick inventor and his wife. Then a no-nonsense, clinical hit man bursts onto the scene and before long, even Zhang's opportunistic relatives are getting involved. By the end, there's a scene in a motel room that's resembles that one in Othello where all of the bodies just end up piled up on a bed." He adds that the film is made "wonderfully unpredictable" by "the fact that the characters don't always necessarily stay dead. The countless resurrections cause you to become almost completely unable to predict where the next power play for the money is going to come from."

But think about this and you may realize Mr. Humphrey is being stubbornly optimistic; that if you never know what's going to happen to any of the characters and many of them don't stay dead, you're robbed of normal expectations, of anything to follow, and hence of anything or anyone to focus on or care about. Mere unpredictability cannot make a plot interesting. A degree of predictability and connectedness is necessary to care. And characters need to stay dead for one to care about their being killed in the first place.

For a while one may be deceived by memories of the trailer, which I watched multiple times at Angelika Film Center. It is of course a collection of best moments, accompanied by clips from rave reviews, including a dog peeing on a downed man and a brief voice clip from Trump congratulating Hilary on a hard fought campaign, which is the only thing of the kind and hardly qualifies the film as political satire or black comedy.

The action is divided into disjointed chapters with multiple characters, some of whom meet and clash or might be said even to interlock. And so, "If Tarantino were to remake Pulp Fiction as an animated film" one enthusiast says in the trailer, it would be this. But this, plus the low-level gangster action, doesn't qualify the film in the least for the term "Tarantino-esque" or comparison with Pulp Fiction, even if the latter may have been an influence. Unlike Tarantino, Jian Liu is incapable of presenting his action either arrestingly or clearly, nor has he any flair for dialogue or outrageous language, or wit - though there are, certainly, droll or absurd moments. If only they were part of a better-told tale.

As one commentator says the Trump clip only makes the film "of its time," but there is that, to which the music by The Shanghai Restoration Project, described in Wikipedia as "a contemporary electronic music group [combining] traditional Chinese instruments with hip hop and electronica," also strongly and entertainingly contributes, as do sound effects. The sound track variously shows how much sound can compensate for the inertness or flatness of uninteresting animation. There are also a couple of odd, unrelated passages that show what the visuals could have been: a series of inexplicable (apparently dream-sequence) images of animated hand-drawn water that look startlingly real - considering how flat or unnatural or comic book-esque most of the visuals are; and a late sequence outdoors in the street when it is pouring down rain. The drawing of raindrops fills the screen with a sense of action lacking hitherto. The idea otherwise of having not much moving on the screen at any one time seems potentially witty, for a brief while. But the wit fails to come. Mind you, these are sometimes beautiful urban landscapes. But they are insufficiently used, insufficiently differentiated. They are, in the end, wasted, and perhaps belong in another more poetic film. There is also a sequence of stills of satires of Chinese patriotic posters, which are interesting, but play no part in the action. Jian Liu seems to have thrown in some things he just liked and couldn't bear to leave out.

The helpful Wikipedia article, which says Jian Liu completed most of the film (visuals, that is) himself, taking three years to do it (his second film), points out that it was withdrawn from Annecy, the most prestigious and important animation film festival in the world, at the request of the Chinese government. An action like that can make a work of art or an artist, and may have brought initial fame to Have a Nice Day, besides its showing at the high-profile Berlinale, where it may have looked very fresh, especially coming from China. If one were to go by the aforementioned US trailer, one might expect - as I did - for this to be a very cool film. But one would be disappointed. Or if not, perhaps deluded. Its fans say much is hidden below the surface. If so, too deep for me. I hope Jian Liu's ambitions pay off better the third time.

Have a Nice Day, 75 mins., (Chinese: 大世界; pinyin: dàshìjiè; previously titled 好极了 -hǎojíle), debuted at the 2017 Berlinale in competition for the Golden Bear. Distributed by Strand Releasing in the US, it enters theaters 26 January 2018 (Angeliika Film Center NYC, others to follow). Metacritic rating a whopping 82%, but based on only five reviews, and if one looks closely they all have reservations.

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