Director: Zhang Yimou
Producer: Zhao Yu, Yang Qinglong, Zhou Ping, Zhang Weiping
Cast: Benshan, Dong Jie, Dong Lifan, Fu Biao, Li Xuejian
An engaging, bittersweet comedy from acclaimed director Zhang Yimou that ranks right up there with some of his best work. Equal parts humorous and heartfelt, this quirky little film depicts the complex relationship between an aging bachelor and his girlfriend's blind stepdaughter, centering on the duo's mutual search for some semblance of happiness in the most trying of circumstances. As per usual, Zhang even sneaks in some veiled political commentary to go along with the straightforward narrative.
At first glance, Happy Times might be considered an odd title considering the clearly unhappy circumstances of the film's major characters. For example, the protagonist, Zhao (Zhao Benshan), is an out-of-work, fifty year-old bachelor on the prowl, looking for love, but as the country song goes, "in all the wrong places." His last eighteen relationships haven't worked out so well, but upon meeting a portly divorcee, Zhao begins to think his luck has finally changed. For reasons not entirely explained, our hero feels it necessary to mislead the woman into believing he is a wealthy manager of a hotel. And since Zhao isn't just poor, but an admitted cheapskate, the prospect of keeping up this ruse seems daunting from the very start.
With the help of his old student Fu (Li Zuejian), Zhao makes over an abandoned bus, turning it into "The Happy Times Hotel," a secluded retreat for lovers seeking privacy in the bus's more natural surroundings. Unfortunately, Zhao's conservatism spoils what looks to be a surefire moneymaking proposition when he adamantly refuses to allow paying customers to close the door, thus ruining the underlying appeal of the makeshift hotel.
Later, Zhao stops over for dinner at his intended fiancée's house and meets her spoiled brat of a son (Ling Qibin) and her blind stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Although the stepmother tries to put her best face forward, her cruelty towards Wu Ying becomes evident as the evening wears on. Viewing Wu Ying as nothing more than an unwelcome guest in her house, the stepmother pawns her off to Zhao, forcing him to give her a job at the Happy Times Hotel. Grudgingly, Zhao agrees to take her, but Wu Ying remains suspicious of the whole enterprise. Through a stroke of luck, Zhao is able to keep the charade alive, but when he and Wu Ying return home, both are shocked to find that her stepmother has thrown all her belongings out and moved her obnoxious stepbrother into the room.
With his fiancée unconcerned with her stepdaughter's future, Zhao allows Wu Ying to live in his apartment, pretending it to be a hotel suite. He soon hatches a plan to give her a job at a nonexistent massage parlor. With the help of a ragtag group of retired friends, Zhao builds a faux shop within an abandoned warehouse. They diligently lay carpet, cushion the walls, and record street sounds from outside an actual massage parlor to help make the place seem as real as possible. In comic fashion, Zhao takes the illusion even further by having his friends pose as customers, but soon runs into a cash dilemma when the realities of paying her salary and tip money start to become daunting.
But even though the entire situation is fake, there is definite sincerity in Zhao's motives, making the happiness experienced by not only Wu Ying, but all the characters no less real. But even among the laughs and poignancy, a sense of impending doom pervades the picture. When will Wu Ying find out? And how will she react? The results may be surprising for some, as the film leads to one of the most unexpected endings I've seen in a quite a long time.
As with his films Not One Less and The Road Home, Zhang Yimou is able to take a very simple story and add not only a layer of depth, but a real sense of emotional impact to the proceedings. In addition, while the film can be read "as is," there is an added dimension of political commentary going on. Certainly things like the stepmother's cruelty and corpulence, and Wu Ying's blindness could be read as more than just factual circumstances of the plot. Although I won't delve into the possibilities here, I'm quite sure cultural critics could find ample fodder for political interpretation in Happy Times.
Social commentary aside, what really holds the film together is the burgeoning friendship between Zhao and Wu Ying. Zhao Benshan does a fine job in the lead role, and Dong Jie is impressive as Wu Ying, imbuing her character with a paradoxical sense of fragility and strength. Happy Times is ultimately about two lonely people longing to make a connection. Zhao has no family, and his search for a wife has little to do with sexual desire and more to do with a need for companionship. Similarly, Wu Ying's horrible home life coupled with the absence of her father, has led her to experience a life starved of love. Here, these two strangers meet, and through a variety of circumstances are able to forge a surrogate father-daughter bond.
Certainly, if one were to look only at the social conditions of the main characters in Happy Times, the film's title could be construed as wholly ironic. But that wouldn't be the whole story. Even amidst the hardship there are true happy times for these characters, fleeting though may be. Although the ending could be interpreted as sad, for me, it is actually a happy one, albeit nontraditional. The real irony comes in the film's final scene when what needs to be said is unheard by the people who so desperately need to hear it. But that isn't to say the connection will never be made. There is a sense of ambiguity and open-endedness to the film for sure, and although Happy Times doesn't tie up every loose end, it does feel thematically "complete," even as it leaves the viewer wanting more. The film may not depict the kind of happy times people associate with straightforward commercial fare, but in this reviewer's estimation, Zhang Yimou's little film more than lives up to its title. (Sanjuro 2005)
• Based on the novella by Mo Yan entitled, "Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh."
• The Chinese DVD contains an alternate ending.
Awards: 2002 Valladolid International Film Festival
• Winner - Best Actress (Dong Jie)
• Winner - FIPRESCI Prize (Zhang Yimou)
• Winner - Silver Spike (Zhang Yimou)
• Nomination - Golden Spike (Zhang Yimou)