Director of Chinese animation Have a Nice Day on bringing his lurid vision of China to the world, despite pressure from Beijing
With his trademark simple cel animation, Liu Jian explains why he paints an unflattering picture of modern-day China with his second feature film Have a Nice Day, the winner of a Golden Horse award in Taipei last year
When you think of animation companies, you probably envisage vast enterprises with thousands of employees like Pixar or Blue Sky. Even the more boutique Japanese outfit Studio Ghibli, who brought us Spirited Away in 2001, has had up to 300 workers in the past.
So it is something of a shock when I ask Chinese director Liu Jian about his Le-joy Animation Studio, which he formed back in 2007.
“There are only two people in the studio – me and my wife,” explains the 48-year-old matter-of-factly. It is a surprising revelation, particularly when the bespectacled, goateed Liu also reveals that for his latest film, Have a Nice Day, he did 95 per cent of the animation himself, across three years.
While most animators are patient creatures, you have to admire someone who dares to fly solo. Liu’s 2010 debut, Piercing I, was also created almost single-handedly, with an artisanal approach that used very spare-looking, hand-drawn techniques.
Premiering at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Have a Nice Day was the first Chinese animation to officially compete at the prestigious event. Far from the fantasy and fairy tales of Studio Ghibli, Liu’s effort is a modern-day film noir; an adult-oriented tale of greed, murder and betrayal, like a Chinese Coen brothers film. (For the record, Liu tells me that Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki is “one person I respect a lot”.)
Set in a small town in southern China, the story revolves around a bag of money stolen by a young driver, Xiao Zhang (voiced by Zhu Changlong), who intends to take his fiancée to Korea for corrective plastic surgery. The trouble is, he has inadvertently robbed a local mobster, who soon sends an assassin (and part-time butcher) after him and the loot.
Barring A Scanner Darkly – Richard Linklater’s adaptation of a novel by Philip Dick about a drug addiction epidemic – it is rare to see an animation tackle such lurid subjects. But Liu doesn’t see his film as being about the perils of avarice. “The most important themes of the film are destiny and choice,” he says. “Since my first feature film, Piercing I, I’ve tried to make genre films with the form of animation. I’m a big fan of genre film.”
Set around the financial crisis of 2008, Piercing I followed a down-on-his-luck youngster who loses his job in a shoe factory – and takes several beatings – in a modern-day China soaked in greed. Have a Nice Day feels like a continuation of that theme, making it perfect fodder for cineliterate film nerds.
“The reason why I make film is because I’m a film-goer myself,” Liu says. “There are several directors that influence me, like Clint Eastwood, the Coen brothers and Takeshi Kitano.” In the case of the Coens, their debut feature film Blood Simple, and the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men and Fargo, all feel like they have had a hand in Have a Nice Day – though in the case of Fargo, Liu swears he prefers the spin-off TV series.
Scored with synth-pop compositions by David Liang of the Shanghai Restoration Project, Have a Nice Day is also flush with contemporary references: everything from Marvel comic character Deadpool to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and US president Donald Trump. Given how long animated films take to make, these on-the-nose references seem surprising. But Liu explains that he tends to leave “gaps” in his films to allow him to add in “something that is relevant and modern” as he sees fit later down the line.
Brexit watchers will even find a nod to the British public’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union. As one character says, there is “no point going to the UK after they left Europe” – the sort of comment likely to sting in the United Kingdom.
“I think it’s very relevant,” Liu says. “There are a lot of Chinese students who pursue education in the UK … if the UK leaves Europe, does it mean that the UK is becoming a country on the margins?”
Liu studied landscape painting at the Nanjing University of the Arts, graduating in 1993. He says his education was perfect for his profession. “I learned Chinese painting in school, so animation is very easy for me,” he says, explaining that he turned his attention towards the form after seeing Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Kon Satoshi’s Tokyo Godfathers – two anime classics “that had a great impact on me”.
Liu began by working on small animated segments in live-action productions before grappling with his feature-length Piercing I. His pared-back simple cel animation, which has drawn comparisons to the work of comic-book artist Daniel Clowes, among others, has now become something of a trademark. “One thing I’m sure of is that I’m going to continue and make more films in this style,” he says.
If anything makes his work stand out, however, it is the portrait of everyday China – a world of neon signs, flashing mobile phones and seedy internet cafes. “I live in China and I wanted to show a picture of contemporary China with my film,” he says.
In truth, it is hardly a flattering portrait. Characters scrabble around in a world where money and acquisitions are the centre of the universe. Unsurprisingly, Have a Nice Day has already run into problems with the Chinese government: in June, the film was pulled from the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France after its production team received pressure from Beijing.
But even though it is packed with observations about Chinese life, society and pop culture, the film’s shabby realism stems from the world around Liu. “We did a lot of location scouting. We took a lot of pictures. Based on the pictures, we drew the landscape part of the animation. Even the characterisation, if there’s any action – like a punch – we will do it, take a picture and draw it based on the pictures.”
Of course, there is nothing new about using reality for inspiration. But Liu – who claims not to know too much about animation – believes this is what makes his work unique in this field. “You mention the term ‘animation’ but to me it’s more about ‘animated films’,” he says. “So I think my film is different from the animation we usually see. It’s more about film in an animated way.”
Speaking in measured tones, Liu has the typical methodical qualities that most animators possess. “There is no short cut when making animation films,” he says. “The images must be painted one by one.”
At least he has a sounding board in the shape of his producer-wife Lynne Wang. “I work at home so I talk and discuss the screenplay with her all the time and she always gives me great advice.”
After winning a Golden Horse award in Taipei last year for best animation feature, Have a Nice Day is now hitting cinemas. Liu, meanwhile, is ramping up pre-production for his third feature.
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Is he planning to grow his company? “I don’t think that will happen,” he says, admitting he wants to remain a cottage industry. “In the future, even though we may have more animators, I will do most of the work myself.”
Sometimes, small really can be beautiful.
Have a Nice Day opens on January 12
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