Reviewed by GREG KING.
Out of despair can come hope and optimism for a brighter, better future. That is the main positive message one takes away from the ironically titled Happy Times, the touching, tragic, bittersweet and poignant new film from revered Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern, The Road Home, etc). Such is Yimou’s reputation outside his native China, Happy Times has been produced by such Hollywood heavyweights as Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days Of Heaven, etc).
This amusing and moving character study centres around Zhao (Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan), a lonely, unemployed, middle-aged bachelor desperately looking for love. He begins a relationship with a rather buxomly woman (Dong Lihua), who has a spoiled, idle and indulged overweight son (Ling Qibin) and a blind stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie, a classically trained ballet dancer making her feature film debut here) to look after.
To impress his intended fiancée, Zhao tells her that he is a successful hotel manager, and reluctantly agrees to find a job for Wu at his hotel. The only problem is there is no hotel – in a misguided attempt to appear more important Zhao has big-noted himself. The hotel is only an old bus that has been renovated and turned into a “quickie hotel” for young couples looking for somewhere to spend some quality time. But when then the bus is carted away by the council which wants to renew the land around it Zhao finds himself caught up in a comic chain of events as he tries to create a fake hotel for Wu.
Zhao’s friends concoct a scheme whereby they convert part of an empty industrial factory into a massage room, where Wu is employed. In the meantime, Wu finds happiness, while Zhao comes to regard the blind girl fondly, and treats her as if she were his own daughter. The deception works for a while, but eventually Zhao realises that he will have to tell Wu the truth. The warm relationship that develops between Zhao and Wu is touchingly and sensitively handled by Yimou, and this unusual tale is not without its considerable charms.
There is a strong vein of humour running throughout the delightfully entertaining Happy Times, which gives audiences the misleading impression that this is quite a lightweight film from Yimou. But Happy Times is suffused with Yimou’s trademark subtle but biting criticism against the oppressive social and economic policies of the current Chinese ruling regime, and the subtext only becomes painfully obvious during the moving final scene.
The performances from the cast are all endearing and sympathetic. Zhao brings a wonderful presence and comic charm to his role, while Jie brings a wonderfully vulnerable quality to her beautiful, understated performance as Wu. As Wu’s domineering stepmother, Lihua plays the screen’s worst mother since Shelley Winters in A Patch Of Blue.