Leisurely and deliberate, intelligent and casually cruel, “Have a Nice Day” is a stone-cold gangster thriller whose violence unfolds in passionless bursts. Opening with a quotation from Leo Tolstoy’s last and bleakest novel, “Resurrection,” this wittily animated feature from the Chinese writer and director Liu Jian presents a generic, follow-the-money tale as a Darwinian commentary on ruthlessly modern materialism.
The stolen bag of moola moves briskly from one grasping hand to another, yet the movie’s images are often strangely static. For seconds at a time, the only movement in the frame might come from a single, flashing light on empty train tracks or a blinking neon sign in front of a deserted factory. These lone blips of vivid color emphasize the palely anemic sweep of industrial blight around them, the grubby gray storefronts and trash-lined streets where characters scheme for easy enrichment and a leg up to otherwise impossible dreams.
Zhang (voiced by Zhu Changlong), the initial thief, needs to pay for a redo of his girlfriend’s botched plastic surgery. Yellow Eye (Cao Kou), a depressed hit man, wants start-up cash to finance a career as an inventor. Sundry underworld types scratch and sniff in pursuit, but their harebrained motives — like the money itself — are mere tools with which to paint a pitch-black picture of Chinese economic frustration set against the allure of Western opportunity.
Chatty to a fault, these gangsters rarely kill without preamble, declaiming everything from philosophy to Fauvism and Buddhism to Brexit. The voice actors rise to the occasion, often portraying multiple emotions in a single, ruminative monologue. The story that frames them is thin, but the animation has a style and restraint all its own, its clean precision and curiously flat aesthetic ensuring our focus on words as well as deeds.
Speckled with present-day politics and musings on global capitalism, “Have a Nice Day” conjures a small-town landscape of pitiless greed. A marriage proposal is rebuffed, its bearer left unconscious on the roadside while his beloved drives off with their ill-gotten loot. Earlier, we’ve seen the owner of the money coolly torture a childhood friend, even as he fondly reminisces about their shared formative experiences. Cars crash and characters are repeatedly bonked on the head, every brutality erupting on a canvas that’s studiously devoid of affect.
In a setting this dismal, sex seems a nonstarter, though a hardy few peddle repurposed animal carcasses as procreative aids. “Works better than Viagra,” one peddler assures his mark, proffering a wild turtle. Even killer-entrepreneurs sometimes need a little help to get the job done.