It sounds like a simple title, but "Happy Times" is open to multiple interpretations. It can be applied seriously or ironically to what transpires in Chinese director Zhang Yimou's fine new film, or simply be taken at face value as the name of one of the plot's key locations.
Similarly, "Happy Times" itself can be viewed from several vantage points. The film makes use of unashamedly sentimental plot devices, but its emotions are realistic and true to life. Although somewhat old-fashioned, there is nothing cheap or easy about it, and it provides a sharp picture of how life is lived in today's rapidly Westernizing China. Simultaneously poignant, engagingly funny and bittersweet, it mixes its elements in a way that is completely its own.
"Happy Times" also provides the latest example of a remarkable change of pace for director Zhang, one of China's top filmmakers. A former cinematographer, he came to the attention of the West with a series of impressively shot tales of passion, including "Raise the Red Lantern," "Red Sorghum" and "Shanghai Triad," all starring actress Gong Li. Zhang's last several films, by contrast, have forsworn steamy plots and dazzling cinematography. Simply photographed, with some shots apparently caught on the fly in real locations, these new films--including "Not One Less," "The Road Home" and now "Happy Times"--are intimate and human-scaled, concentrating on ordinary people and their problems.
"Happy Times," written by Gui Zi and based on a novella by Mo Yan, is not in any hurry to get to the meat of its story, which focuses on a middle-aged ne'er-do-well named Zhao (popular actor Zhao Benshan) trying to get by in a large city so overrun by fast-food joints that Haagen-Dazs is considered the treat of choice.
Actually Zhao is not just trying to get by, he's trying to get married. We see him sweet-talking a likely candidate, proclaiming "no skinny women for me" to a plus-sized divorcee (Dong Lihua), although we later learn that it's skinny women who've rejected him, not the other way around.
The divorcee wants a 50,000-yuan wedding, and the impecunious Zhao asks co-worker Fu (Fu Biao) for help. Fu comes up with the idea of refurbishing a derelict bus behind their factory and turning it into a kind of love motel called the Happy Times Hut.
A big talker for whom exaggeration is as natural as breathing, Zhao promptly tells his intended that he is the owner of a major hotel. This conniving woman, the mother of a boxcar-sized son, also has a blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), from a previous marriage whom she'd like off the premises. Surely there's a job for this person, she insists, in Zhao 's enormous establishment.
Unwilling to confess the truth and hoping that the blindness of Little Wu (as he comes to call her) will work in his favor when it comes to hiding reality, Zhao agrees to find some kind of work for this rail-thin 18-year-old.
The heart of "Happy Times" is the quasi-paternal relationship that develops between these two highly unlikely companions. A natural conniver and truth-bender, Zhao is astonished by Wu's straight-line intensity and refusal to prevaricate. Used to abuse and hostility, she's initially sullen and defensive, a proud defender of the absent father who's promised to return.
Naturally, things don't go smoothly for Zhao at the Happy Times Hut, or anywhere else for that matter. Zhang's film is at its best showing its protagonist desperately trying to cope with a shifting and increasingly untenable reality while trying to keep the truth from Little Wu, whom he's become increasingly fond of and who is more aware than he realizes. Zhao's antics create a lot of humor, but a kind of wistful sadness is never far from the surface.
With a blind-girl-facing-the-world plot that might have served for a silent picture premise, "Happy Times" is unafraid of emotion, but that doesn't mean there is anything preordained about it.
This is a film that goes its own way to the end as it asks the audience, "What you just saw, were they happy times or not?" The question is a good one, and the answer, like this film, is sure to stay with you.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and language. Times guidelines: some adult situations.
Dong Jie...Wu Ying
Fu Biao...Little Fu
A Guangxi Film Studios, Zhu Hai Guo Gi Enterprise Development Co. and Beijing New Pictures Distribution Co. production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Zhang Yimou. Producers Zhao Yu, Yang Qinglong, Zhou Ping, Zhang Weiping. Executive producers Edward R. Pressman, Terrence Malick, Wang Wei. Screenplay Gui Zi, based on the novella by Mo Yan. Cinematographer Hou Yong. Editor Zhai Ru. Costumes Tong Huarniao. Music San Bao. Production design Hou Yong. Art director Cao Jiuping. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
At selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times