DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
HAPPY TIMES (Xingfu shiguang) (director: Zhang Yimou; screenwriters: Gui Zi/ based on the novella "Shifu, You'll Do Anything
for a Laugh" by Mo Yan.; cinematographer: Yong Hou; editor: Ru Zhai; music: Bao San; cast: Zhao Benshan (Zhao), Dong Jie (Wu Ying), Dong Lihua (Stepmother), Fu Biao ( Little Fu), Li Xuejian (Li), Leng Qibin (Wu Ying's Stepmother), Niu Ben (Old Niu), Gong Hinghua (Aunty Liu),  Zhang Hongjie (Lao Zhang), Zhao Bingkun (Lao Bai); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG; producers:  Zhao Yu/Yang Qinglong/Zhou Ping/Zhang Weiping; Sony Pictures Classics; 2001-China)

 
"...it pulls all the heart strings it can in a shameless attempt to get real emotions."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern"/ "Ju Dou"/"Not One Less"/ "The Road Home") has hit a bump in his ambitions to be a mindblowing humanistic filmmaker. He once irritated the Chinese government with his provocative films that were indirectly political, but now he seems to be no longer interested in making great idea pics as were his earlier ones but instead aims to make empty sitcom crowd-pleasers for a middle-brow audience (note his last two films). This cutely told but strained tale about a blind orphan has a hollow ring.  It's written by Gui Zi and is based on a novel by Mo Yan titled Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh. "Happy Times" is a formulaic telling of the old tale about a selfish and untrustworthy meanie who treats an innocent child in her custody like dirt, and of course to complete the formula characterizations there's the unlikely inept soul who acts out of kindness to rescue the child from her bondage. The title has a double meaning, it is derived from the name of a fake hotel and it ironically suggests that the thematic territory covered is anything but happy. The old-fashioned tale reeks from sentimentality and it pulls all the heart strings it can in a shameless attempt to get real emotions.

Zhao (Benshan) is a dimwitted and prudish retired factory worker in his fifties who was never married and now a matchmaker fixes him up with a chubby bride (Dong Lifan), of whom he happily visualizes will keep him warm and toasty. Skinny would-be brides have turned him down. His choice is an obvious witch as one look at her simpering smile could make you feel as queasy as if being touched by a vulture, but to further show what a cold-hearted cow she is we see her interact with her two stepchildren in an unfair way. She treats her obnoxious chubby grandchild (Leng Qibin) with kid gloves while the sweet blind 18-year-old stepchild Wu Ying (Jie) is given the worst food, is verbally abused and is treated with utter disrespect as if she were simply a burden.

The divorcee wants a 50,000-yuan wedding and even though Zhao is broke, he has been rejected by too many others to now flinch at this opportunity and agrees to that sum so as not to lose her. He asks co-worker Fu (Fu Biao) for money. The equally broke Fu dreams up the idea of fixing up an abandoned bus with a red paint job from discarded cans of paint the factory tossed away, and the bus located on a scrubby lot behind their factory is turned into a place couples use like a motel. Fu names the place the Happy Times Hut.

Zhao exaggerates his position in life and his source of money, and tells his girlfriend that he is the owner of a major hotel and he's the general manager. The scheming woman manages to get him to take Wu with him to live and work in the hotel. The remainder of this predictable plot shows that Zhao can't stop lying about his importance and he does everything to convince the girl it's a real hotel. When the bus is removed as debris to clear the lot, he gets his other sympathetic idle factory co-workers to set up a fake massage parlor in an unused space in the factory warehouse. They become her only customers and since they don't have money to pay her they give her blank pieces of paper to fool her into thinking it's money. Wu had training as a masseuse and is happy to be useful, and for the first time the love-starved girl receives some affection; but, when she realizes that Zhao and the workers were doing it out of the goodness of their heart and that they have no money to pay for the service, she skips town to go it alone and supposedly heads for Shenzen where her no-good father resides--but of whom she still dearly believes will save her. He abandoned her after promising her he would return when he saved up enough money for her eye operation to save her eyesight.

The unnamed big city "Happy Times" is set in reflects how Westernized China has become. It's a bustling place with plenty of fast-food dives.

There's just nothing that interesting about this reactionary comedy; but, at least Yimou exercises considerable restraint in keeping all these weepy sentiments in check and by wisely adding some comic relief through the warm characterizations by the supporting cast of factory workers, namely in the rich performance Li Xuejian gives as the first to get a massage and be affected by the blind child's plight.

REVIEWED ON 1/16/2003     GRADE: C

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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