Happy Times (Xingfu Shiguang) (China, 2002) ***
Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Gui Zi, based on a novella by Mo Yan. Photography, Hou Yong. Editing, Zhai Ru. Art direction, Cao Jiuping. Producers, Edward R. Pressman, Terrence Malick, Wang Wei. Cast: Zhao Benshan (Zhao), Dong Jie (Wu Jing), Dong Lihua (stepmother), Li Xuejian (Li), et al. 106 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles, Rated PG.
Zhang Yimou (b. 1950) is the best known (and for some people, the best, period) film director of mainland China. Until recently his fame was based on movies set in the past, e.g. "Red Sorgum," "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern." Now he is going to contemporary stories.
"Happy Times," whose title is both literal and deviously ironical, centers on fifty-something Zhao. Although he does not look aged, all the young people he meets address him as "old man" or "grandpa." Clearly the self-cult of youth has also spread to China. Zhao is a retired factory worker who never married and has had bad luck with women, specifically with thin ones. But finally he has met a perfect candidate for a wife. He is officially engaged to an obese, twice divorced woman, the mother of an obese boy and the stepmother to 18-year old, pretty, rail-thin and sad Wu Ying, who is blind.
Zhao and "Chunky Mama," (as a friend of Zhaeo's calls her) are planning their wedding, which, says she, has to be splendid. Shao pretends to her that he is the rich manager of The Happy Times Hotel. But the place does not exist. Happy Times is a harebrained invention. It consists of a derelict bus found in a dump that doubles as lovers' lane. Zhao and his buddy Li refurbish the vehicle by painting its interior a garish red, with the hope that it can be rented by the hour to trysting couples seeking privacy. (It doesn't work, for a funny reason.)
Zhao's fiancee is calculating, exploitive and wants to get rid of her stepdaughter. She pushes Zhan to find for the girl a job in his hotel. Complications arise, involving the young lady, some of Zhao's former colleagues, now retirees, and a hard-to-believe but often touching charade. The blind girl is taken to an abandoned factory, is made to believe it is the hotel, and is set up as a masseuse, the 'real' kind, not the euphemism for sex-providers.
Suspension of disbelief is needed as matters develop, but the wildly inventive plot has plenty of humor, warmth, human kindness, and un-sugary sweetness. A touching (and in the context, credible) bond is created between Zhao and Wu Jing. In addition, the movie avoids both claustrophobia (there are nice street scenes that add good elements) and taking itself over-seriously. Performances are very good, notably the difficult one of the blind girl. Undoubtedly, Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece "City Lights" (about the tramp and the blind flower girl) will come to the mind of all savvy viewers, but Zhang Yimou's movie is minimally --if at all-- related to that 1931 production. The subtitles are exceptionally clear and complete. And the many prizes awarded in festivals are fully justified.