The seven films that Zhang made with Gong Li (Red Sorghum, The Puma Action, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, and Shanghai Triad) a decade ago were the fruits of a collaboration between a director and his leading lady as brilliantly productive as the partnership of Joseph Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich during the 1930s. Happy Times illustrates Zhang's work post-Gong and post-Deng. In contrast to the period dramas and rural stories for which he became known, the new film offers a glimpse of contemporary urban China following the fall of Deng Xiaoping, a society in transit between Mao and McDonald's.

Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is a middle-aged bachelor who does not take no for an answer, though he has heard it 17 times. At the opening of the film, a matchmaker sets him up with his eighteenth prospect, a pudgy divorcée (Dong Lihua) with a spoiled son and an abused stepdaughter. We know the boy is spoiled because his mother keeps stuffing him with ice cream, and we know that the girl is abused because her stepmother makes a public show of offering her ice cream before snatching it away from the sightless girl when no one else can see. Eighteen-year-old Wu Ying (Dong Jie) lost her vision to a tumor some time after her mother died, and she lost her father when he abandoned his second marriage and left his daughter behind. But Wu still loves her father and dreams that he will return from a distant city with enough money to cure her blindness.

Intent on wooing the stepmother, Zhao cannot avoid entanglement in her domestic mess. When she insists on an expensive wedding, Zhao, who is close to broke, feigns being wealthy. He pretends that he is the manager of a posh establishment, the Happy Times Hotel. In fact, the closest he comes to validating the claim occurs when he discovers an abandoned bus and charges couples an admission fee in order to tryst within. But even that scheme founders when squeamish Zhao refuses to allow the lovers to close the bus's door.

Zhao's intended asks him to find work for Wu and take the girl off her hands. Zhao does not know quite what to do, since he has no hotel but does not wish to alienate the selfish, greedy woman he wants to make his wife. So he moves Wu in to his own apartment and moves himself out onto the street. With the help of a few friends, Zhao organizes an elaborate charade, a kind of Potemkin massage parlor. In the corner of an old warehouse, they rig up what, to someone who cannot see, might feel and sound like a posh hotel room. And one by one each conspirator poses as a client, there to purchase a rub from Wu. When Zhao's cash runs out, they pay the masseuse with empty rice paper that might feel like currency. The comic sequence provokes laughter through a lump in the throat. The blind girl is lured back from despair to happy times, either because she believes that she is finally doing something worthwhile or else because Wu is flattered into rapture by knowing that Zhao cares enough to devise intricate shams in order to dispel her sorrow.

When the stepmother discovers that Zhao is not the prosperous businessman that he has claimed to be, she is irate. But we never have any doubt that this horrid lump of woman is as desirable a catch as influenza. And when she berates her hapless, fibbing suitor, we know that she is guilty of something far worse than mendacity — cruelty. Happy Times offers a sentimental belief in the tenacity of goodness, despite vivid evidence of a society driven by icy rapacity. In his own bumbling way, Zhao is an endearing artist of benevolence, whose virtues even a perceptive viewer will take a while to see.

Happy Times
"City Lights with chopsticks"
Dir. Zhang Yimou; writ. Gui Zi, based on a novella by Mo Yan; feat. Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie, Dong Lihua, Fu Biao, Li Xuejian (PG)


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