How to score an animated gangster movie

The Shanghai Restoration Project reveal how they created the soundtrack for Have A Nice Day.

Little White Lies

One of the highlights of last year’s Berlin Film Festival was Liu Jian’s wickedly funny animated gangster flick Have a Nice Day. Set in a small town in southern China, the action kicks off when Xiao Zhang – a lowly getaway driver – makes the unwise decision to steal money from a heist to fund plastic surgery for his girlfriend. With a distinctive pop art colour palette and a soundtrack that blends synth and disco with traditional Chinese folk music, it’s a fiercely original slice of cinema. To celebrate the film’s release on MUBI, we spoke to soundtrack artists Dave Liang and Sun Yunfan, aka The Shanghai Restoration Project, about their entrancing electronic score.

“Our music is inspired by the 1930s Shanghai jazz scene, where Chinese musicians worked side by side with African-American and European musicians in nightclubs, marked China’s foray into pop music. Composers like Li Jinguang and Chen Gexin (a songwriter of Chinese and Indian descent who studied classical music from a German Jewish composer) wrote hundreds of ballads combining Chinese opera and folk music with American Jazz. It was an era in which traditional genre and ethnic boundaries were blurred when it came to making music, an approach that inspires our creative process to this day.

“As a Chinese-American, Dave always thought of Chinese folk music and Western pop as two separate universes. Dave grew up studying jazz and classical piano, sang in various choirs, produced for the American hip-hop label Bad Boy Records, and watched his mother and grandpa play Chinese folk instruments. He never thought all of these genres could be fused together until discovering the wormhole of Shanghai jazz in college. In 2005 Dave founded SRP in order to create a sound that incorporates these diverse influences.

“The soundtrack to Have a Nice Day features two songs from our 2009 album ‘Zodiac’. Other tunes on the soundtrack include an original satiric political pop song written by Liu Jian and two voice actors in the film and the end credits disco song by Chinese singer Zhang Qiang. In the past, instead of commissioning original compositions Liu Jian’s habit was to either DIY or select songs from the existing repertoire of his musician friends. For example, his first full length movie Piercing I used songs of his good friend, the Chinese rocker Zuoxiao Zuzhou.

“We became friends with Liu Jian when he was doing an art residency in New York several years ago. Whenever we toured China, he would always come to our shows. Since we made the music before the film, he never give us any direction. And though we never talked about the intent behind these two compositions, somehow they matched perfectly with the film. The themes of the songs he selected, ‘dark HORSE’ and ‘laboRATory’, inspired by the Chinese zodiac animals horse and rat respectively, tie in very well with the movie. In the rat race of Have a Nice Day, every character believes him or herself to be the stealth contender who will come out on top. Our next collaboration with Liu Jian is a more traditional director-composer relationship. We are currently in the process of writing original music for his next film.

“When we were watching Have a Nice Day in the theatre and heard the characters talk about Brexit or Trump’s election, we thought to ourselves, ‘Those are the same events that compelled us to create the songs in ‘R.U.R.’, which is our first official release as a duo. We live in an increasingly uncertain yet connected world and as artists, we will continue to be introspective, do self-examination, and draw from these uncertainties and connections in our work. But even amidst the chaos there is still much to celebrate and embrace. Or as Liu Jian himself recently stated, ‘Perhaps the world is a mess, but life is still worthy of our love.’”

Have a Nice Day is released in select cinemas on 23 March. Join The Shanghai Restoration Project, MUBI and Little White Lies at the Genesis Cinema on 22 March for a special screening and after-film panel discussion.

Published 19 Mar 2018

Tags: Liu Jian MUBI Shanghai Restoration Project

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Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.