'Happy Times': Big Themes on a Small Scale

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 9, 2002

If O. Henry were alive and well and making movies in China, he might have directed "Happy Times," a tender, tragic allegory in which grave human emotions play out against a small, simple backdrop.

"Happy Times" represents an uncommon outing into the present for director Zhang Yimou, who has earned an international following for such lavish historical dramas as "Raise the Red Lantern," "Ju Dou" and "Shanghai Triad." Here he focuses on such grand themes as loneliness, compassion and self-deception in the day-to-day life of contemporary Beijing.

Zhao Benshan plays Zhao, an aging bachelor who's doggedly searching for the love of his life. He thinks he's found her when he meets a voluptuous woman on a blind date; eager to impress her, he says he's a well-off hotel manager. When she asks him to give a job to her blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), he has no choice: Since the girl is an accomplished masseuse, Zhao and his friends construct an elaborate simulacrum of a hotel massage room, then proceed to play "customers" for her benefit. As Zhao and Wu Ying's relationship deepens, they both discover that the truth must sometimes take a back seat to virtue and compassion.

For all the solemnity of its themes, "Happy Times" is billed as a comedy, and it does indeed contain several touches of quiet humor. But the heart of the movie is unmistakably dramatic, especially in the poignant, restrained performances of its lead actors. Dong Jie delivers an especially memorable performance as Wu; with her graceful neck and delicate, birdlike presence she recalls a young Audrey Hepburn.

Woven throughout "Happy Times" are some interesting observations of capitalism as it is being cautiously adopted and adapted in China, which is now balancing the benefits of Haagen-Dazs franchises against the fallout from stock market corrections. "Happy Times" is an engaging and specific portrait of a culture in transition, even as it evokes humanity's most universal and timeless values.

HAPPY TIMES (PG, 95 minutes) Is rated PG for thematic elements and profanity. In Mandarin with subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Cinema Arts Fairfax.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company