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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2002

Gonna break your heart, just like he did before

Happy Times

Rating: * * * *
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Opens Nov. 2

It's nice to see how director Zhang Yimou HAS mellowed in recent years, aging like a fine wine. It wasn't so long ago that it looked like he'd sour, as his long-term relationship/creative partnership with actress Gong Li hit the rocks. But after the cold, cold low point of "Shanghai Rouge," Zhang's films have become progressively warmer, sentimental and sweet. Well, bittersweet, to be precise: Zhang is becoming a master of the happy-sad climax, as anyone who bawled their way through Zhang's last film, "The Road Home," already knows.

News photo
Zhao Benshan and Dong Jie in Zhang Yimou's "Happy Times"

His latest, "Happy Times," shares many traits with that film: gentle comedy; straightforward storytelling; unabashed sentimentality; and an irresistibly cute young actress in the lead. And like "The Road Home," Zhang slowly, subtly works his magic until -- again -- he breaks your heart with the finale.

With its tale of an abandoned little blind girl, her evil stepmother and the kindly, clownish old guy who helps her out, "Happy Times" feels like a film from an earlier, simpler era -- even the title sounds like something Chaplin could have used. The film is almost old-fashioned in its innocence, the antithesis of current indie cynicism and Hollywood "edge." But while Western critics may prefer the remote, alienated styles of Asian cinema (a la Iwai Shinji or Jang Soo Won), Zhang knows his audience. Given the economic Darwinism and social turbulence rampant in the totalitarian-capitalist China of today, there's clearly a need for fables like this one, championing communal ties, friendship and selfless -- should I say "profitless?" -- acts of kindness.

Zhang does acknowledge the harsh social conditions in urban China, but obliquely, as the background to the story he wants to tell, which is of two very lonely, very different people, separated by age, who nevertheless find in each other a reason to keep going.

Zhao (played by popular TV actor Zhao Benshan) is an unemployed ex-factory worker, forced into early retirement when his state-run workplace closed down. A middle-aged bachelor with too much time on his hands, Zhao's been trying to land a wife, but with no luck. Finally he sees a chance when he meets a Jabba the Hutt-size divorcee (Dong Lihua, credited as "Chunky Mama"). "I thought you liked skinny women," remarks his old factory friend Fu (comedian Fu Biao); "I do," says Zhao, "but they don't like me!"

Sensing his last chance at companionship, Zhao puts on his best shirt and brags to his honey how he's a wealthy businessman who'll put up 50,000 yuan for a lavish wedding. Next thing he's hitting up Fu for cash, but he's as broke as Zhao. What he does have, though, is a scheme: Together the two friends refurbish a derelict bus near a remote lover's lane in a Beijing park. After painting the interior an appropriately romantic red, they dub it the "Happy Times Hut" and proceed to charge couples who are seeking a bit of privacy.

Now that's the kind of entrepreneurship Deng Xiaoping would have been proud of, but Zhao is foiled when some government workers "beautifying" the park haul off his little bus. Even worse, he already made a promise to "Chunky Mama" to employ her blind teenage stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie) at his "hotel." Worst of all is that Chunky Mama won't let the girl back into her apartment; she's given her room to her spoiled brat of a son and tells Zhao to put Wu up at his "employees' dorm."

Zhao sputters and dances around the truth, but to no avail: He's stuck with the dour little girl, and if she finds out there's no hotel, there go Zhao's chances with her stepmother. Fu points out that since the girl can't see, "you can tell her whatever you want! It'll play to your strength -- you're a good bullshitter!"

Thus begins an elaborate farce wherein Zhao, Fu and a few of their old factory buddies create a fake "massage room" in the abandoned factory, with the idea of convincing the girl -- a trained masseuse -- that she's working in Zhao's hotel. Zhao's friends pose as wealthy customers, they pad the rusting factory walls to feel like linen, and even play a tape of street sounds to complete the effect.

Zhao & Co. are terrified of slipping up and being caught, but Wu Ying beams, happy to have a job and be free of her stepmother. Cracking her first smile of the film, she tells Zhao how she wants to save money to go find her father in Shenzhen, where she believes he's working to earn money to pay for an operation to restore her sight.

Zhao knows that's not so and is crushed by pity; he's then determined to keep up the ruse for the sake of Wu Ying. But where will he find the money for her "tips?" The deception gets ever more clever, and Zhang delivers some great comic set-pieces, but that bittersweet end comes rolling around the bend . . .

While many critics have called this a "feel-good" film, I beg to differ: The final scene is simply heartrending. Just as old Zhao and little Wu finally open up and reveal their deepest feelings, it's also the moment where the two are utterly alone and isolated. The final effect, of the two having touched each other and yet somehow slipped by, is painfully poignant. Mild-mannered tragicomedy may not be the flavor of the month, but any film that can squeeze a tear from this hard-bitten cynic (I cackled as Leo went under the waves that last time in "Titanic") gets a wholehearted recommendation.

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