Happy Times

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 9, 2002

A benign but surprisingly sappy confection from filmmaker Zhang Yimou, "Happy Times" tells the story of Zhao (Zhao Benshan), an impoverished sad sack who, in order to impress a skeptical girlfriend, offers to give her blind daughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), a job at his business, the Happy Time Hotel. Little does either of the women know that the "hotel" is just an abandoned bus in the middle of the woods that Zhao and his best friend, Fu (Li Xuejian), have spruced up as an al fresco trysting spot for lovers. But when that eyesore – and income source – is carted away, Zhao enlists the assistance of his fellow "retirees" (read: laid-off industrial workers) to convince Wu Ying that she is a masseuse in a thriving massage parlor. Jury-rigging a table in the middle of an idle factory, and playing a recording of street noise in the background, Zhao's pals parade in and out all day as regular customers, tipping with blank scraps of paper when they run out of real money. All the while, Wu Ying speaks longingly of saving enough to track down her long-absent father and pay for an operation to cure her blindness (sniff, sniff). While the surrogate father-daughter bond between Zhao and his young beneficiary is tender – and the most interesting thing about this snail-paced exercise – the set-up is implausible, to say the least. Despite a modest twist ending that lends a much needed dash of cynicism to the affair, the film's maudlin focus on the young woman's infirmity and her naive dreams play like the worst kind of Hollywood heart-string plucking.

HAPPY TIMES (PG, 106 minutes)Contains a tiny bit of rough language and vaguely sexual thematic elements. In Mandarin with subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company