Berlinale 2017. The Concrete Foundations of Greed

The Chinese animation "Have a Nice Day" is a tongue-in-cheek rat race of small-time crooks chasing down an enticing bag of money.
Yaron Dahan

Xiao Zhang, a lowly construction-site driver, pilfers a bag of money from small-time local mobster in a foppish plan to make good on his girlfriend’s botched beauty surgery and remake her in the image of the Lord by being able to afford her a visit to the plastic wizard-doctors of Korea. The plan (like all comedy heist plans) takes little time to go awry, and it’s only a matter of minutes until the lovelorn protagonist loses his bag of money to Yellow Eye, an unscrupulous motel owner and inventor of X-Ray glasses, in the first passage of the money from hand-to-hand through acts of theft, random accidents, and calculated betrayals.

Have a Nice Day is a tongue-in-cheek rat race of small-time crooks chasing down an enticing bag of money in an anonymous and newly-built-yet-already-run-down urban growth (concrete tumor would be the right image). The setting is but an insignificant side-show in modern still-communist-but-actually-totally-capitalist China. The million stolen RMB manifests as a bag full of red 100-yaun notes emblazoned with Chairman Mao’s fatherly face smiling towards the thieves as an evident, ironic reminder of just how far the Communist Party is removed from any notion which could be considered communist (how not to think of Žižek’s Caffeine-Free Diet Coke which is Coke which no longer contains any remnants of its 'Cokeness').

Liu Jian’s cast of unmenacing mafia bosses, thieves who can’t steal, killers who can’t murder, complaining girlfriends, ineffectual boyfriends and treacherous acquaintances all scamper across the same concrete urban space vying for the same heap of cash. They connive and con each other mercilessly to get their hands on this elusive great wealth, their promise of salvation—salvation as evidently empty to the viewer as the image of the planned dream real estate project “Shangri-La.” The petty criminals traverse this animated theater pervaded by filth and grit through cheap motels, internet cafes, shitty apartments, and already failing construction sites: the results of China’s hyper-urbanization more telling than any gleaming, brochure-touted skyward-reaching edifice. 

The humor is dark, the murders multiple. Clear, sparse lines contain dulled greens and grays that are the nature of a life bred from concrete and capital.  Yet these hapless figures inhabiting this space of sin are sympathetic, in a way.  The very modern sin of development, which the film indicates in an epigraph from Tolstoy, is the economic environment in which they have been steeped. And the sin is against nature: a disfiguration of “that little corner of the earth where they had crowded themselves together,” a disfiguration from which the characters will not come away unscathed. 

It is no accident that the heart of the film is real estate development, whose foundation seems to be not the concrete upon which the buildings lay, but greed and corruption which funds it. The characters adrenaline-filled frenetic rush for the money is both literal and a social commentary on a China run amok by an imported ideology, a market capitalism which cultivates avarice as its primary virtue. Gone are the days of the communist ideology of common destiny, and all that remains of its legacy is Party politics combined with capitalist economic competition for personal gain and interest, the results of the unapologetic embracing of the market economy. Confucian ideals of virtue, honor, and thriftiness in China have gone the way of the New Deal in America. The unchecked adoration of material wealth that has created “banks too big to fail” and gave the United States a silver-spooned, openly greedy, failed real estate entrepreneur and reality TV buffoon as a president is the same adoration that China has inherited—and the same one that motivates the laughably vain desires of the characters in Have a Nice Day. 

Have a Nice Day

What is humorous in this dark social comedy is that the characters are a clumsy and unintelligent. They can do little right—they mistake identities, go to the wrong locations, get into accidents—and each one is more ridiculous than the last. Xiao Zhang, the original thief, makes the buffoonish mistake of falling asleep at a computer in an Internet cafe with a bag of money on his lap while chatting with his girlfriend online. Skinny, the “butcher” who is an actual butcher, meat cleaver and all, is distracted by his cellphone and can’t seem to carry through a single hit.  Uncle Liu, the mobster boss who seems to be running the construction site, can’t even protect himself from being cuckolded by his best friend, a painter whom he half-heartedly tortures in one of the opening scenes.  

Yet their greed is only a pale amateurish imitation of the unabashed professional greed of the political elites gaming a system which these “regular folk” will never comprehend. A greed which breeds violence, that spills out into the streets in this satirical comedy in which everyone is out stabbing everyone else with sharp objects, smacking them over the head with blunt ones, or simply crashing into them with cars. All for a bag of money, a silly vanity which it is evident no one will be really able to enjoy (even if Xiao Zhang gets to keep the money, where would he go?)—an idea, an obsession of the characters all vying for survival in the hyper market economy, a frenzy which leaves little left behind other than a pile of corpses splayed upon the concrete.

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