The Animation that Deconstructs Itself—Liu Jian’s Piercing I and Have a Nice Day

By Yiman Wang

Liu Jian, a Nanjing-based animator and director with a background in painting, has single-handedly launched the genre of black humor adult animation in China, and further catapulted it into the international limelight with two feature-length works, Piercing I (2010) and Have a Nice Day (2018). Produced by the Le Joy Animation Studio, which was founded by Liu in 2007, both works are a testament to what Liu calls “One person’s animation film” (yigeren de donghua dianying).[1] Breaking away from the industry convention of collective assembly work, Liu was individually responsible for the script, drawings, animation, editing, music selection, and many other aspects of making and marketing these films. Have a Nice Day took four years to make. During this period, Liu worked ten hours a day and drew forty-four thousand cells; the finished film is composed of eight hundred shots. His artisanal and auteurist approach ensures that the films carry his trademark black humor, cartoonish minimalist aesthetics, and absurdist narrative.

Following the successful premiere of Piercing I at the Holland Animation Film Festival, Have a Nice Day became the first Chinese and the second Asian animated film to compete at the Berlin International Film Festival,[2] and the first mainland Chinese animation to win Best Animation Feature at the 54th Golden Horse Awards. It also travelled to the Tokyo International Film Festival, the Busan International Film Festival, the London Film Festival, AFI Fest, and many more. As a black humor adult animation, Have a Nice Day also achieved a surprising landmark by securing a theatrical release (limited as it was) on January 12, 2018, in China and Hong Kong, and on February 2 in the US.

Given their idiosyncratic style, Liu’s films, especially the theatrically released Have a Nice Day, have sparked enthusiastic discussion. Many reviewers point out Have a Nice Day‘s intertextual connections with Quentin Tarantino’s, the Coen Brothers’, and Guy Ritchie’s thriller and crime genres that present stark violence and deliver caustic social criticism. Euro-American reviewers unanimously dwell on the film’s surrealist lampooning of China’s money-crazy materialism and capitalism that result from the country’s globalization. Jeannette Catsoulis’s New York Times review calls this film a “stone-cold gangster thriller, a generic, follow-the-money tale as a Darwinian commentary on ruthlessly modern materialism” and a “pitch-black picture of Chinese economic frustration set against the allure of Western opportunity.”[3] Many reviewers praise Liu’s artisanal approach and minimalist style. Bilge Ebiri speaks positively of “the surprisingly vibrant, hand-drawn images” that “revitalize the story’s more tired elements” by foregrounding “the empty streets of a depressed Chinese town, the blinking neon of rough neighborhoods, the ubiquity of screens, and the constant drone of mobile devices.”[4]

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky goes further to celebrate Liu’s “meticulous linework, muted solid colors, and interplay of simple features and crisp details,” calling for a comparison with the styles of New Yorker illustrator Adrian Tomine and other like-minded graphic novelists and alternative cartoonists. Commenting on Liu’s minimalist animation (“often limited to a single fizzling neon sign, smoking cigarette, or jerky movement in a panel-like frame”), Vishnevetsky sees this “static style” as crucial to Liu’s “dryly ironic and surreal” deadpan black humor.[5] Another reviewer, Wes Greene, enthuses over “[t]he film’s pale-hued, Flash-like animation…abundant in detailed backgrounds that make the characters stand out like placards, allowing for Jian’s critique of modern China to land with maximum force. In Jian’s China, capitalism is the new drug.”[6]

Different from Euro-American reviewers’ overwhelming enthusiasm for the film’s minimalist cartoonist aesthetics and its absurdist narrative that leads to a bleak portrayal of all-consuming materialism, Chinese commentators demonstrate less interest in the film’s critique of capitalism and voice more criticism of the film’s aesthetics and animation technology. Despite admiration for Liu’s approach, some commentators blame the film’s extremely low budget for its lack of sophistication, as manifested in the jerky animation, the emotionally detached dubbing of the dialogue, and the seemingly purposeless nearly two-minute shot of the actual ocean. Specifically, they criticize the low frame rate that leads to staccato animation, or what they call the “effect of animated PowerPoint,” which frustrates the spectatorial desire for lifelike motion. They also describe the dubbing, done by Liu’s friends in the Nanjing dialect, as akin to “textbook-reading” and therefore alienating.

In his interviews, Liu spells out two ostensibly contradictory intentions. On the one hand, he claimed he deliberately opted for non-professional, colloquial dialect dubbing. After trying professional dubbing in standard Mandarin Chinese for his first film, Piercing I, he decided to jettison that version and re-dub the film by asking his friends to read the lines as if they were speaking in everyday life. The purpose is to inject a sense of location-specific everydayness into the vocal performance. On the other hand, Liu stated that he only provided the script to his friends but not the animated film, which could account for the voices’ emotional detachment. The vocal performance, therefore, encourages the audience to become cognizant of a down-to-earth dialect culture while preventing full audience identification. The same alienation effect resulting from a partial illusion can also be found in the staccato animation, which is a jittery motion that calls attention to its own imperfection. The insertion of a nearly two-minute live action shot of waves on the ocean, with subtle color modification, similarly jars the audiences’ expectations. The unease created by this shot has to do with its enigmatic length, its apparent irrelevance to the plot, and its inappropriateness in the context of animation and its suspension of indexicality. Liu declines to explain the rationale of this shot, preferring to keep it a point of ambiguity so as to let the audience come up with their own interpretations.

While easily attributable to the low budget, the incongruent elements described above fundamentally define the tenor of Liu’s films. The staccato animation, the emotionally detached dubbing, and the unexpected insertion of the ocean wave footage all convey a sense of non-belonging and contradiction between divergent elements. The low frame rate per minute highlights the contradiction between frame-by-frame graphic fiction and the principle of animation that engenders fluent motion between frames. The textbook-reading style of dubbing suggests the characters’ non-commitment to their words. The long live action take of the billowing ocean waves indicates a reprieve from the jerky animation—a moment of the surreal and the otherworldly in the midst of breathless materialism.

This stylistic non-belonging and contradiction mirrors the films’ thematic focus on transient characters and the shifting urban environment that are at odds with each other. “Never mind who I am. I’m just passing through” – this habitual response by Skinny, the hitman in Have a Nice Day, is emblematic of the existential situation of all the characters in Liu’s films. In both films, migrant workers are the protagonists, whether they are the college graduate and his friend who fail to find work in the city in Piercing I or the construction company driver who robs his boss of one million RMB and thus triggering an avalanche of violence in Have a Nice Day. Furthermore, migrant status also applies to all other characters ranging from small business owners to real estate developers in the films. Under the globalizing capitalist economy, all characters are rendered migrants who constantly move around to sell their menial and mental labor. In this sense, all of the characters are “passing through” with transient social identities, pursuing financial gains with or without success.

Importantly, the space they pass through is no less transient. It has been noted that Liu’s line drawing is sketchy and flat for the characters, contrary to the detailed, quasi-photorealism that characterizes the background drawings. Closer attention to the background reveals layers of imagistic and scriptural details. We see messy construction sites, a hotel, an internet café, a tea house, streets—all empty and deserted. Their semi-presence already signals evacuation and erasure. Furthermore, the background is plastered with all kinds of texts, including movie posters (such as Bruce Lee’s Game of Death and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky in Have a Nice Day), propaganda banners (such as “We shall turn crisis into opportunities” that references the 2008 financial crisis in Piercing I and alerts against terrorism in Have a Nice Day), real estate marketing slogans, scamming advertisements, and disreputable neon lights that advertise various businesses. The background encapsulates the shifting palimpsest of the environment in which businesses, official slogans, and scams vie with and overlayer upon each other. The transient background is further manifested in the cacophonic background sounds, especially TV and radio broadcasts of topical news such as a snippet of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory speech.

Not only are these background images, texts, and sounds transient and shifting, their existence is also poignantly ironic due to their contradiction with the characters’ experiences, or the characters’ nonchalance toward them. In Have a Nice Day, Trump’s victory speech is far removed from Skinny the hitman’s life, yet ironically comments on his attempt to raise enough funds to send his daughter to the US. Again in Have a Nice Day, the migrant worker-turned-robber and the hitman both stop at a cardboard cutout policeman planted in a crop field only to completely ignore it as if it were just another straw man. These scenes ironize the impotence of the legal system. In Piercing I, the slogan of “turning crisis into opportunities” is in the distant background when the migrant worker characters in the foreground debate whether the 2008 financial crisis is relevant to their jobless and penniless situation. One of the characters’ statement that the social underdogs have no opportunities with or without the financial crisis scathingly belies the self-deluding official slogan of turning the crisis into opportunities. In Have a Nice Day, a briskly animated music video-esque fantasia is inserted to represent the “smart” couple’s dream of robbing one million RMB so as to move to Tibet and live a peaceful life of farming and pig husbandry. This fantasia appropriates the colorful propaganda visual icons from the Cultural Revolution, showing the couple in stereotypical peasant and worker outfits, posing as if they were participating in socialist construction. One shot shows them reading a book that can be understood as the little red book of Chairman Mao’s teachings. In the fantasy however, the red book has a new cover that reads “The Manual for Anti-terrorism”—referencing the Chinese government’s campaign to delegitimize and crush dissenting activities in Tibet and other border regions of China. This interloped text, small as it is, encapsulates the absurdity of the individual desire for success being structured by shifting political discourses that are in turn appropriated and parodied by commercial pop culture derived from global capitalism.

All of the characters who are “passing through” are shown as not belonging to or ironically displaced in the urban environment, or simply ignoring and mocking it. By extension, we see cars of all makes constantly zipping across the frame, stopping only so the driver and passenger can carry out unsavory deeds, or being forced to stop due to accidents. Cars become vehicles speeding to a dead end, or a means with no end. If the car as a largely imported means of personal transportation is simply passing through with no purpose, the train—an icon of China’s high-speed mass transit technology pushed extensively by the domestic government and also sold to African and South American countries—similarly figures as a transient phantom. In Piercing I, the frustrated migrant worker protagonist plans to take the train home (giving up his city dream) only to get caught up in a whirlwind of scams and mishaps; his train trip back home never materializes in the film. In Have a Nice Day, a scene shows a train passing by via the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. This bridge is another icon of Chinese nationalist pride, an embodiment of China’s design and construction prowess through the completion of its first truss bridge in 1968 despite an imperialist embargo and the country’s split with the former USSR in the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Importantly, however, contrary to celebrating the architectural feat that bridges the “natural schism” (“tianqian,” as Mao calls it) between south and north China, the scene in Have a Nice Day shows the bridge and the train passing through only in the distance. Furthermore, the scene is introduced by a large green reptile. Crossing the railway tracks in the foreground, the animal pauses in reaction to the sound of an approaching train; the scene then cuts to a long shot of the train passing via the bridge in the distance. The passing animal and the passing train further resonate with the skinny stray dog that passes through the frame (in both Piercing I and Have a Nice Day). Like the migrant characters who are “passing through,” the passing homeless animals, train, and cars all share the status of anonymity, disconnection, and alienation from each other and from their environments. Traversing the urban space at night—a time when crooked activities take place in both films—the human and non-human characters as well as personal and public vehicles pass through the screen like so many phantoms, missing or colliding with each other in various mishaps.

Ultimately, what or who passes through the screen becomes irrelevant since they all end up in the same mess of violent death and non-futurity rendered in black humor. In other words, their fantasy of mobility and improvement becomes nothing but going through the motions (of fantasizing, robbing, and killing). If animation fundamentally means to breathe life into still pictures by injecting motion into them, then Liu’s staccato animation goes against the “life drive” as it perfectly captures the oxymoron of motion and stagnation, life and death. Even as the characters and the vehicles are moving through the space frantically, this motion itself is always already plagued by interruption and arrest. Liu’s seemingly less sophisticated technique captures precisely this paradox. On the one hand, he utilizes animation to enliven the drawings, creating the effect of motion and of “passing through.” On the other hand, his low frame rate emphasizes the still-frame graphic effect that jams the motion, foregrounding its pointlessness. As all the characters and cars that pass through are arrested in a pile-up, arguably the animation of the frames also comes to a stop.

In this light, special significance arises from the lengthy sequence of quasi-still shots of urban settings, ranging from a panoramic night scene to close-up shots of a street corner and a car license plate, that accompany the opening credits in Have a Nice Day. As all the characters and vehicles have passed through and met with their abrupt end, the empty dilapidated urban space remains. Liu’s animation visually bears out the atrophy from passing through to depletion, from frantic yet pointless motion to lifeless stillness. His animation is fundamentally one of de-animation, which is at the heart of his black humor social critique.           

[1] Liu Jian, “One Person’s Animation Film,” <https://v.qq.com/x/page/l0146xuru6x.html>, accessed December 8, 2018.  

[2] The first Asian animation entering competition at the Berlin International Film Festival was Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (2001), which won a Golden Bear in 2002.

[3] Jeannette Catsoulis, “Review: In ‘Have a Nice Day,’ a Follow-the-Money Tale in China,” <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/movies/have-a-nice-day-review.html>, accessed December 8, 2018.      

[4] Bilge Ebiri, “Spoiler Alert: Nobody Has a Nice Day in Have a Nice Day,” <https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/01/26/spoiler-alert-nobody-has-a-nice-day-in-have-a-nice-day/>, accessed December 8, 2018.              

[5] Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “The Chinese Crime Comedy Have A Nice Day Blurs the Line between Comics and Animation,” <https://www.avclub.com/the-chinese-crime-comedy-have-a-nice-day-blurs-the-line-1822253863>, accessed December 8, 2018.              

[6] Wes Greene, “Have a Nice Day,” <https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/have-a-nice-day>, accessed December 8, 2018.     

Bio:

Yiman Wang is Associate Professor of Film & Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz.  She is the author of Remaking Chinese Cinema: Through the Prism of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hollywood (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013) and editor of the Asian Media special issue of Feminist Media Histories (2019). She is currently writing a book on Anna May Wong, the best known early 20th-c. Chinese-American screen-stage performer. She has published numerous articles on border-crossing stardom, transnational Chinese cinema, Chinese documentaries, comedy and animation.     

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