In Happy Times, it turns out director Zhang Yimou has a lighter side after all. Or maybe not.
More than any of his Fifth Generation Chinese filmmaking contemporaries, Zhang has told his cinematic stories with a bitter edge. Born into a family of Nationalist sympathizers, he nearly wasn’t accepted into film school at all because Cultural Revolution work assignments held him past the maximum age for admission. He responded with beautifully crafted, subtly damning critiques of the Chinese power structure: Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, The Story of Qiu Ju.
But after mellowing a bit in recent, smaller films like Not One Less and The Road Home, Zhang has turned to flat-out comedy. Happy Times sets up like broad farce blended with even broader sentimentality, then starts taking some dark twists and turns. If this is Zhang laughing, it must look like a grimace of pain.
That grimace would be an understandable expression on the face of Zhao (Zhao Benshan), the hard-luck protagonist of Happy Times. An aging bachelor seeking a companion through a matchmaker, the fiftysomething Zhao woos a divorcée (Dong Lihua) with the suggestion that he’s quite financially comfortable. Unfortunately, he’s actually laid-off and broke, and an inveterate liar and schemer to boot. In an attempt to raise cash for the big wedding his new girlfriend desires, Zhao and his friend Fu (Fu Biao) renovate a derelict bus in a nearby field, turning it into a way station for privacy-seeking lovers they dub the “Happy Times Hut.”
That premise gets Happy Times off to a ripping start as Zhao’s conniving begins to clash with his conservative sense of decorum. When prospective customers do arrive at the “Happy Times Hut,” Zhao insists that they leave the door open—as hungry as he is for cash, he can’t quite stomach the idea that he’s running a by-the-hour sex motel. Zhang nods to the awkward evolution of the Chinese economic reform with a comic character whose capitalist urges don’t include embracing its anything-goes ethics.
Those scenes in the film’s first half-hour are some of its best, but they don’t offer a clue as to what’s coming next. As it turns out, Zhao’s beloved has a blind stepdaughter named Wu Ying (Dong Jie), who was abandoned by her ne’er-do-well father. Eager to get rid of the burdensome girl, the wicked stepmother urges Zhao to employ her at the hotel he has told her he co-owns and manages. And thus begins yet another elaborate ruse: Along with several other friends, Zhao and Fu construct a fake massage parlor in an abandoned warehouse, creating for Wu a nonexistent job as a masseuse in Zhao’s nonexistent hotel.
The whole thing stinks of one of those “orphan helps curmudgeon open up to life” stories that drip with enough sentimentality to leave a puddle on the theater floor. Make the orphan blind on top of everything else, and you’ve got something that should be aiming a flamethrower at your chest, daring your heart not to be warmed. Instead, the film often tightens your chest with Zhao’s increasing desperation—there’s something painful and sad about his insistence on throwing money he doesn’t have after a quest for someone to love him.
Then, just as Happy Times is about to head in the direction you would expect—with Zhao finding his unconditional affection paternally rather than romantically—the film slams into a brick wall of tragedy. Zhang builds a gentle comedy, then denies us a gently comedic payoff. For every gag—and there are several amusing moments sprinkled throughout—there’s something discomfiting or vaguely creepy. It’s a risky approach, one that makes the film interesting to contemplate in retrospect but awfully hard to embrace.
Zhang loads so much subtext into Happy Times—the aforementioned economic issues, a Life is Beautiful-esque study of willing self-deception—that you’re bound to walk away feeling you’ve experienced a rich film. The performances are sharp, the emotions genuine and the narrative never quite predictable. And yes, sometimes it’s just plain funny when Zhang wants it to be. But even when he’s clowning, he seems like one of those crying-on-the-inside kind of clowns. The sweet, small and depressing world of Happy Times makes for one tricky trip to the circus.