Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is a poor 50 year old bachelor who has not been lucky in love. When he meets who he believes is the woman of his dreams, he pretends he is wealthy and agrees to an extravagant wedding far beyond his means. Zhao’s best friend (Li Xuejian) comes up with the idea to raise the money by refurbishing an abandoned bus that they will rent out by the hour to young lovers in the park – the Happy Times Hotel. But Zhao is too old fashioned to allow couples to have the privacy they are looking for, and the plan is a miserable failure. Then Zhao’s intended bride insists that he employ her blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), but then he needs more lies to convince the 18 year old Wu, a trained masseuse, that she is giving massages in a real hotel and not a converted warehouse with his friends as fake clients.
Review by Louise Keller:
What a sweet film this is! Amusing, tragic and with a heart of solid gold, Happy Times is a gorgeous film. Zhang Yimou sets up the premise beautifully, and only too quickly do we see how one lie leads to another, and yet another. But every lie is told with such good intentions, and the consequences become more and more ludicrous. We can tell from the very beginning that Zhao has a big heart, although not the pocket to match, and when he cycles over to his would-be bride’s ramshackle apartment, he would not dream of visiting her without a bunch of red roses; as he can’t afford the expensive ones, he trims the petals of inexpensive flowers instead, to pass them off as roses. Although Zhao has expressed that he likes fat women, we get the feeling that really he just wants someone to love. ‘I’m over 50 years old – what’s wrong with doing something for a woman,’ he muses. The characters are wonderful – the fat money-grabbing mama, her vile pudgy son and the tragic stepdaughter who is discarded like a decayed flower. Of course, things hot up when Zhao and his colleagues become embroiled deeper and deeper in a maze of lies, and their days end up spent as massage clients for Wu Ying in the make-shift massage parlour, with street noises (for veracity) from a tape recorder. There are many funny moments, but none funnier than the scene when the first client lies on the massage bed, and his head falls through the huge hole intended for facial support. All the scenes are full of atmosphere – I love the scene in a busy Beijing street when Wu Ying touches Zhao’s face and body so she can get an idea of what he ‘looks’ like through her fingers. But the most moving moment comes right at the film’s end, when the emotional impact explodes in a scene of indescribable poignancy. Often bordering on farce, Happy Times is a bitter sweet film that is gloriously entertaining. It takes us on the very edge of comedy and tragedy and warms our hearts all the while.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Zhang Yimou’s latest film is deceptively emotive, its power hidden behind a smoke screen of comedy. We start by laughing but by the end we have tears on our cheeks. In between, we get to know a middle aged bachelor full of flaws and a young blind girl abandoned by fate into the fat arms of an indifferent stepmother. The magic of Zhang Yimou’s cinema is how he leads us with great care and subtlety to our own realisations about the characters. At first, we see a silly elderly man on the edge of ridicule, trying to find a fat wife. The one he finds is fat alright, but not much else about her really appeals – not to us. When we meet the blind stepdaughter, emotions begin to shift, the comedy changes focus and the real story of how a young girl in need of love can change a cheat and a liar into a man of great heart. And now he doesn’t seem silly at all. The seamless cinematic skills of a classic filmmaking style tell this simple story to great effect; Zhang Yimou makes good use of all the tools of editing, music and camera to bring us into the humble world of contemporary China. Above all, though, it’s the two riveting performances from Zhao Benshan as the older man and Dong Jie as the young girl that will stay with you, and despite the lump in your throat at the end, it is the upside of human nature that the film celebrates.
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HAPPY TIMES (PG)
CAST: Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie, Song Lihua, Fu Biao, Li Xuejian, Dong Lifan, Leng Qibin
PRODUCER: Yang Qinglong, Zhang Weiping, Zhao Yu
DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou
SCRIPT: Gui Zi (screenplay), Mo Yan (story)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hou Yong
EDITOR: Zhai Ru
MUSIC: San Bao
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Cao Jiuping
OTHER: Language: Mandarin with English Subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Searchlight
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 5, 2002
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: March 5, 2003 (Also on DVD)
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: May 19, 2004