"Your years are catching up with you, old man…giving you ideas."
Perennial Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once said, "A lie is an abomination unto the Lord, and a very present help in time of trouble."
This is the story of a man who epitomizes that maxim.
Facts of the Case
Unemployed and fifty-something, Zhao (Zhao Benshan) has been engaged eighteen times without ever making it to the altar. His latest prospect is a heavyweight harridan (Dong Lihua) who believes Zhao is co-owner of a luxury hotel—mostly because that's the story he's pitched to her. "Chunky Mama" and her couch potato son (Leng Qibin) view Zhao as a potential meal ticket: not only as a source of funds, but also as a patsy on whom to unload Wu Ying (Dong Jie), the blind teenaged stepdaughter left behind in the wake of one of the cetacean golddigger's prior conjugal experiments.
Zhao, feeling old age approaching like a runaway train, is desperate not to lose the affection of the hefty honey who may represent his last chance at marital bliss. ["Don't you like skinny girls?" wonders Zhao's friend Fu (Fu Biao). "But they never like me," whines Zhao.] Needing an infusion of cash to support his lady love's planned 50,000-yuan wedding extravaganza, Zhao eagerly embraces Fu's get-rich-quick solution: they'll spruce up the derelict bus abandoned in a nearby park, and rent the converted hulk—its interior now painted bordello red and dubbed "The Happy Times Hut"—to young lovers as a secluded place to "unwind." Eagerly, that is, until an appalled Zhao realizes the privacy-seeking couples may actually engage in premarital sexual congress in the makeshift passion pit. (What did he think the kids were going to do—play Chinese checkers?) Before Fu can convince Zhao of the superiority of money over morality, the bus gets hauled away as part of a civic cleanup project, bouncing our penniless Lothario back to square one.
Zhao's girlfriend prevails upon him to employ Wu Ying at his mythical hotel, plying the only trade for which the young woman has been trained: shiatsu massage. Zhao, Fu, and their coterie of jobless pals set up a "spa" in a dormant factory. (A hilarious sequence shows the six men and one woman touring local massage parlors to scout out decorating tips.) They pad the factory walls with discarded cloth sacks to simulate linen wallpaper, cover the floor with carpet remnants, record street sounds on a boom box to simulate a busy urban setting, and build a makeshift massage table with a face opening large enough to drop an anvil through. Once Wu Ying is ensconced in her new quarters, the men present themselves to her daily as the supposed clients of the hotel, paying her gratuities with slips of plain paper. It's all very innocent—Wu Ying's massage is strictly ethical, and the men never so much as hint at taking inappropriate advantage of the girl. Their ploy is intended only to keep the blind waif occupied while Zhao woos her venal stepmother, and to afford the girl a dim hope of saving enough money to rejoin her deadbeat dad.
Of course, no falsehood can be perpetrated forever, especially when the object of the ruse is not as naïve as she appears at first glance. When Zhao's scheme unravels, as it inevitably must, unexpected consequences arise.
Happy Times could never have been filmed in Hollywood. The idea of a group of fiftyish men employing a blind teenaged girl as their personal masseuse simply wouldn't fly in a U.S. production. Not without descending headlong into tawdry innuendo, if not outright pornography. It is testimony to the vagaries of Chinese culture that director Zhang Yimou can present this bizarre tale as a tender, sentimental comedy without any sleazy sexual subtext. The American viewer keeps expecting an affair to blossom between the aging bachelor Zhao and the kind-natured, gentle Wu Ying. Not only does such a romance never develop, nothing ever happens to suggest that it might, or even could.
This creates a quandary for the Western audience. Our assumptions about the main characters require that their relationship progress in a completely different direction from what we see. When those assumptions are challenged—or, to be more accurate, never considered—it's hard for us to suspend disbelief. Could an adult man really create a "happy times hut" for lovers without anticipating that their motives for seeking such privacy are sexual? Could middle-aged men really place themselves under the ministrations of a beautiful young woman day after day with no motive other than her self-fulfillment? And what does it say about us as a society that we can't bring ourselves to answer "yes" to these nagging questions?
Director Zhang, whose most familiar works are grand historical epics (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern), has turned his attention in recent years to smaller, more personal stories like The Road Home. Happy Times is this latter sort of film, though with a more comedic tone than most of Zhang's pictures. That it works at all, given its farfetched premise, is tribute to the director's skill. Working from a novella by Mo Yan (who also wrote the source material upon which Red Sorghum was based), Zhang manages to draw us into the world of these everyday people and teach us some subtle lessons about humanity and compassion, and about modern China's struggles to recast itself as a friendly capitalist neighbor instead of a dispassionate totalitarian villain.
Credit also goes to the cast, all of whom turn in nicely flavored performances even in the smaller roles. Zhao Benshan does a remarkable job of taking a character the audience could easily despise—a manipulative liar of pathological proportions—and rendering him accessible, warm, even ingratiating. Part of his charm is that we see through his transparent deceit so easily (he's supposed to be this filthy-rich hotelier, but every time he visits his girlfriend's apartment he's wearing the same dress shirt, and bearing wilted roses with the brown edges trimmed from the petals), and we know that the other characters surely must as well. But we also see that his lies are born of his sincere desire for companionship and, ultimately, his fatherly concern for Wu Ying. On the lighter side, Fu Biao and Dong Lihua each contribute genuinely funny moments as the best friend and the horrifying fiancée, respectively.
The film's triumph, however, is the radiant Dong Jie as Wu Ying. Without overreaching, she earns our empathy—as opposed to sympathy—for this tragic yet plucky young woman, and gradually reveals her inner strength, intelligence, and sweetness. Dong delivers several quietly powerful scenes: her eloquent account of the circumstances surrounding her blindness and subsequent abandonment by her father; using her hands to create a picture of Zhao in her mind; the heart-rending sequence when, in a suicidal moment, she stands alone in the middle of a busy street as cars hurtle past. She's a talent to watch—reminiscent of Zhang Ziyi, the standout young actress featured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as The Road Home.
Under its Sony Pictures Classics imprint, Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Happy Times arrives in plain, no-frills packaging. The source print is clean, with only occasional minor flaws, and the transfer delivers a lively, compelling color palette. Bright hues, though, show a significant amount of bleed and shimmer (Fu's fluorescent orange Popeye T-shirt and Wu Ying's red floral dress are among the more bothersome examples). The film shows a lack of crisp contrast throughout. And as usual, Columbia TriStar has gone to town with the edge enhancement tools. It's an acceptable, but underwhelming, visual presentation. On the audio side, there's a quality soundtrack with effective ambience in the surrounds when called for; traffic noise is especially well spaced and active in the field. Dialogue—in the original Mandarin, with English or French subtitles—stays focused and clear.
The only extras included are trailers for three other recent Chinese films: Zhang's Not One Less and The Road Home, and Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Critics who bash such films as Happy Times as being heavy-handed misinterpret the key differences between Eastern and Western cinema. Far Eastern audiences are accustomed to a dramatic tradition that plays with larger symbols and broader metaphors: witness the films of Kurosawa, for an outstanding example. It's not unlike the contrast between acting for the stage and acting on camera. With this little picture, Zhang offers a surprisingly delicate balance of pathos and seriocomic froth. Not high art on the epic scale of some of Zhang's earlier efforts, perhaps, but it's something.
For the viewer who can accept the film's concept at face value without imposing American social mores on it, Happy Times makes a pleasant, even touching, diversion. It's also an interesting slice of modern life in a culture alien to most North Americans. Definitely worthy of your time. A happy time, indeed.
Zhang Yimou and all parties associated with his latest film are found not guilty on all counts and are free to go. The charges of aggravated truth-bending on the part of Zhao are set aside in the interests of justice. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Bonus Trailers: Beijing Bicycle, Not One Less, The Road Home
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