Zhang Yimou, the most internationally famous filmmaker from the People's Republic of China, is primarily identified with lush period dramas (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and Shanghai Triad) and secondarily with simpler, more realistic tales (Not One Less and The Road Home). What he definitely is not identified with is comedy, so his new Happy Times makes for a refreshing change of pace.
The film opens in a restaurant, where middle-aged Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is proposing to a younger, extremely wide-girthed woman (Dong Lihua) he has met through a matchmaker. She accepts his offer, but not until he makes clear he's well-to-do and easily can afford a big wedding.
We find out soon enough just how big a liar Zhao is: The next scene shows his best friend, Li (Li Xuejian), frantically trying to avoid this notorious deadbeat. Zhao catches up and pleads for another loan; after all, he's in his 50s and still has not managed to attract a wife. He's desperate, but what woman wants an old man with no money?
The sum Zhao needs is so exorbitant that Li couldn't raise it even if he wanted to. He comes up with an alternative: an abandoned bus in an isolated clearing nearby. They can fix it up and rent it out to local lovers who are looking for a little privacy in the overcrowded city. Li dubs it "The Happy Times Hotel." When Zhao soon visits his fiancée's home for the first time, he sees an appalling situation. She spoils her son -- a snotty, selfish kid who is as huge as his mom -- while horribly mistreating her stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Her blind stepdaughter, one must add.
At this point, the conclusion becomes clear that Cinderella is one of the film's models. (In fact, director Zhang goes to great lengths never to give the fiancée a name. She is referred to only as The Stepmother.) But Zhao is no Prince Charming himself. He seems to agree with The Stepmother that Wu Ying is an unfortunate burden, even as he sees the fat son laughingly stealing food out of the nearly emaciated, blind girl's bowl.
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She is such a burden that, when Zhao brags that he is manager of a hotel, The Stepmother insists that he find a job for Wu Ying as a masseuse. Unfortunately, on what is supposed to be her first day of work, the "hotel" is hauled away by the city. Panicked at the thought of being exposed and losing his fiancée, Zhao convinces his friends to help him construct a fake massage room in a fake hotel (actually an abandoned warehouse), with which they will fool the blind girl.
You will recognize this as a variation of one of the oldest plots in the world, used at least once in every '50s sitcom, as well as in Frank Capra's two film adaptations -- Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) -- of Damon Runyon's "Madame la Gimp." But it's not merely a blending of Runyon and fairy tales. It also owes a rather large debt to Charlie Chaplin's heartbreaking City Lights (1931) -- a daunting act to follow. But Zhang pulls it off.
The movie is filled with funny visual gags -- and what sounded like a few bits of wordplay humor that couldn't be rendered into English -- but note that this is still a Zhang Yimou film. That is, the serious plot developments in the last quarter of Happy Times do not constitute a conventional Western happy ending.
Happy Times benefits from a strong performance from Zhao, but Dong Jie's is the face you remember at the end. She's another of Zhang's discoveries -- this is her first film -- and, like her predecessors Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, she leaves an indelible impression.