starring Benshan Zhao, Jie Dong, Biao Fu, Xuejian Li
directed by Zhang Yimou
by Walter Chaw Titled in the same serio-ironic vein as Giuseppe Tornatore's Everybody's Fine, Zhang Yimou's Happy Times aspires for the piquant but only really achieves a sort of ridiculous sourness. It's a misunderstanding of irony taken to an Alanis Morrisetteian extreme; far from the eventuality being the opposite of the expected, the outcome of Happy Times is the worst kind of cliché, and its execution is so blunt compared to the sharp satirical barb of Yimou's own Ju Dou that I wonder if Gong Li wasn't the brains in that long lamented relationship. Still, what works in Happy Times is what has worked in this director's best work (Shanghai Triad, Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum): mordant social critique so far removed from realism that its status as political allegory is as subtle as a neon sign and a crack to the noggin.
Zhao (renowned television comedian Benshan Zhao) is an older gent who manufactures an elaborate fiction as general manager of a thriving hotel in order to win the hand of a "chunky mama" (Dong Lihua). ("The skinny ones don't like me," Zhao complains.) Complicating matters is the divorcée's blind stepdaughter, Wu (Dong Jie), whose archetypal goodness stands in stark contrast to her stepmom's (and corpulent stepbrother's (a wonderfully porcine Leng Qibin)) uncompromising, grotesque evil. Forced to give Wu a job at his illusory hotel (an abandoned make-out bus stands in as the "Happy Times Inn" of the picture's literal Chinese title), Zhao and his retired factory worker pals--who stand in for the thrifty proletariat--contrive a mock-up massage parlour, convincing only to the touch, and sit Wu at the helm to collect fake brown paper money.
If all this unlikely tomfoolery can be read as a commentary on avarice and disrespect for traditional values as engendered by the bourgeois, the steady devaluation of currency and labour, the forced provinciality and rigidity of social status, and ultimately the belief that the peasant will persevere through resourcefulness, decency, and stubbornness...all the better. Sadly, the film can't be read as remotely plausible, affecting, or, honestly, very entertaining. Happy Times is the third in a low-reaching trilogy for Yimou, discarding rapturous costume melodrama and the always-lucrative teat of China's historical misogyny in favour of smaller character pieces: Not One Less and The Road Home.
Each of these three films is a process of diminishing returns. There's nothing overtly wrong with either of them, yet they all fail to shake and stir because of the modesty and familiarity of their targets. While Happy Times has a few quaintly comic moments--due almost entirely to the natural rapport shared by Zhao and best friend Little Fu (Fu Biao)--it washes out as another depressing Yimou film that, like all his pictures to some degree since the wonderful Shanghai Triad, doesn't happen to have the benefits of intelligence, subtlety, or cohesion. Originally published: August 16, 2002.