The opening lines of Tolstoy’s 1899 novel “Resurrection” — a quote about nature’s persistence, even in the face of utter industrialization — introduces “Have a Nice Day,” a melancholic, neo-noir animated feature from Chinese director Liu Jian. Tolstoy’s words (“Still spring was spring, even in the town”) are followed by static shots of ashen urban landscapes in southern China, setting the style, tone and pace of the next 70-odd — sometimes very odd — minutes. The absence of life is as much a character as any of the people on screen, including the meek construction driver, Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong), who brashly steals a duffel bag filled with a million yuan (roughly $150,000) belonging to his shady boss, Uncle Liu (Yang Siming).
Zhang takes the money to finance an operation that will fix his fiance’s botched plastic surgeries. But as word of the robbery spreads through town, he’s soon being chased by a growing assortment of inept would-be thieves with dreams of their own: One standout is an amateur inventor who uses homemade X-ray glasses to spot the loot. In an interview, Jian mused that the bag of money is the film’s true protagonist, which is not as absurd as it seems. The tangle of characters that wander through this world are all driven by their desire for the loot, which exerts a stronger pull on them than any single individual.
If this were a more traditionally plotted genre film, Zhang’s betrothed would probably have a big role, but here she doesn’t even appear on screen. In fact, no one does for long enough to form a solid attachment with the audience. The sparse dialogue, which Liu uses to create moody atmosphere, also has a distancing effect. Its juiciest bits, which include Uncle Liu musing on meat buns as a childhood friend of his is beaten to a pulp for sleeping with the mobster’s wife, are reminiscent of early Quentin Tarantino. But here, scenes unspool at a far more meditative clip. A long shot of the ocean — set to an Eastern-tinged electronic waltz, composed by the Brooklyn-based duo Shanghai Restoration Project — punctuates a double murder. Although violence occurs regularly throughout the film, “Have a Nice Day” never revels in it, lingering instead over extended blackouts and shots of empty storefronts and deserted streets.
Too often, this dampens momentum that might otherwise propel a viewer through the story, making for difficult viewing initially. Those who persist, however, will be rewarded with a richly layered portrait of greed, and an examination of how that vice gets in the way of fulfillment. (The fact that the film demands focus and patience to fully absorb its singular bounty seems especially fitting.)
Jian has a strong directorial voice, avoiding preachiness by adopting a tone of wearied philosophizing, a la Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” Animation allows for greater freedom to play with the perception of time and space, and one of the film’s great joys is simply looking at it. Many of the static images — all the more striking in so bleak a landscape — are so vibrant they could hold their own in a gallery show. When a heavy rain falls in the end, it feels less surprising than inevitable.
Those characters who are left standing (or crawling) at the tale’s end might wonder, along with the audience, what it was all for, questioning Uncle Liu’s assertion that we are all either madmen who pillage the world, or fools content with the scraps that fall to us — a crass distillation of unfettered capitalism and zero-sum thinking that sets this cast of strivers on an all too well-trodden path.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains non-graphic violence. In Mandarin with subtitles. 77 minutes.