Happy Times continues Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s transformation from maker of large-scale historical dramas (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, etc.) to a purveyor of small contemporary ones (Not One Less, The Road Home), this time offering a scenario with an added dollop of comedic intent. It’s the story of a simple man whose essential goodness undermines his attempt to be devious — and while Yimou’s canvas may have shrunk, his ongoing humanistic impulse remains sizable.
Zhao (Zhao Benson), middle-aged and unlucky in love, has set his sights on a rather rotund divorcee (one character refers to her as “Chunky Mama”), who has a young son she indulges and a blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), whom she mistreats. Zhao convinces the woman that he owns a luxury hotel, when actually his latest venture is converting an old bus into a lover’s retreat called the “Happy Times Hut.” In an attempt to keep up the deception, Zhao offers to take Wu off Chunky’s hands by giving her a job as a masseuse in his nonexistent hotel. Since the child is blind, he figures that with a little ingenuity he can pull this off and, with the help of some friends, he almost does.
So what we have, basically, is the story of a dubious character being moved to kindness by the innocence of a blind girl that, on paper, may seem a bit too sentimental to bear. But Zhao is such an entertainingly scruffy schemer that you really hope that something will go right for him, that he’ll finally make that deeper connection to someone he yearns for. And when he does, it feels pretty good.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].