It’s hardly the first place you’d expect a Goethe reference, but the fizzy, ’80s-influenced synthpop song that closes Liu Jian’s animated Berlin competition title “Have a Nice Day” (written, like all the film’s irresistible soundtrack cues, by composer David Liang of the Shanghai Restoration Project) does feature the chorus line, “I am the sorrows of young Werther.” But then, incongruity is sort of the name of the game here: Liu’s storyline may be a slight and generic madcap gangster/hitman/thief movie, but the details of aesthetic design and character interaction flesh it out into something a little more wittily resonant, if not exactly deep. The pointed inventiveness of the carefully premeditated form doesn’t just compensate for the banality of the content, it becomes the content.
Against crisply drawn yet richly textured backgrounds, the actual animation (as in, those things that move on screen) is relatively minimal and fairly crude: Often, it is only a flat, 2D car zooming by in the foreground or the blink of an eye in an otherwise static frame that gives any sense of motion at all. But not only does that keep the proceedings simple and linear, it has the effect of focusing the attention where Liu wants it to go: either on the dialogue, which grazes against topics petty and profound while remaining in an ingratiatingly characterful chatty register, or on those backgrounds in which even the plainest wall is peeling with torn fliers and cracked plaster, and every alleyway is a jumble of signage and wiring and trash.
This is a story of gangster-archetype lowlifes, shady opportunists and hired killers, only distinguished from a thousand sub-“Pulp Fiction” knockoffs by the specificity of its location in the unlovely, underclass regions of a southern Chinese city and by Liu’s efficient, muted-palette drawing style. In these ugly surroundings, we meet two construction workers who are also low-level delivery boys for a local mobster, and are in possession of a case filled with a million yuen (just under $150,000).
Suddenly, the younger man, Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong), puts a knife to his companion’s neck, and makes off with the money. We later learn that his motivation for this short-sighted crime was to be able to bring his fiancée to Korea for corrective plastic surgery after her last round went wrong. Absurd and rather humdrum motivations are a recurring characteristic here, as though all these people are so oppressed by the inescapability of their downtrodden lifestyle they can’t even dream big.
The mobster Uncle Liu (Yang Shiming) hears that he’s been robbed while casually torturing an old friend, affably relating anecdotes from their shared childhood while the hogtied man pants and bleeds in front of him. Uncle Liu immediately makes another call, to Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng), a butcher who moonlights as an imperturbable black-clad assassin — or is that the other way around? Skinny sets off on the trail of Xiao Zhang, though he has already in turn been robbed of the money by a wannabe inventor sporting X-ray glasses. The inventor, though full of useful gadgets of his own design, is maybe not the greatest with electricity: In attempting to destroy a speed-trap camera he fears has snapped him and his girlfriend getting away with the money, he gets electrocuted. Cue, obviously, the girlfriend picking up the cash and trying to make a run for it herself.
China is a big, populous place, but Liu’s story makes this particular social stratum feel claustrophobically tiny. Partly that’s the convention of this contrived genre — the noirish black comedy has always relied on a heavy dose of credibility-straining coincidence to land its characters back in the irony-heavy situations they deserve. But it does also make a point about this tawdry milieu and a modern world in which pop culture, politics, and celebrity are international (there are visual and verbal references to everything from “The Godfather” to “Rocky” to “Deadpool” to Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Brexit, and Bill Gates) but the real aspirations of the people scrabbling for a foothold are depressingly parochial. The height of the girlfriend’s ambitions, for example, is to get to a resort-like place called Shangri-La, which cues a brief musical sequence in which her time there is rendered as the ultimate in cheap, synthetic fantasies — a karaoke video.
At one point, a discussion about freedom occurs, and a character helpfully defines its “three levels” as he sees them: Firstly, there’s local market freedom, then supermarket freedom, and finally the ultimate goal that is “online shopping freedom.” Each of these meaning you’d be able to purchase whatever you like in those respective marketplaces without worrying about cost. Freedom in modern China, suggests Liu Jian’s enjoyably unserious “Have a Nice Day” as its only really serious point, is only ever the freedom to buy.