anomie | 12/19/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"There was a time when I longed to see another Zhang Yimou film. His greatest films, "Raise the Red Lantern," "Shanghai Triad," "Ju-dou," and "Red Sorghum" are--without a doubt--some of the richest cinematic experiences--and I'll stress the word "experiences" that I've EVER had.
But something happened to Zhang Yimou, and his artistry--as perhaps one of the greatest directors of all time--waned. Was it perhaps because he lost his muse, Gong Li, star of "Shanghai Triad" and "Raise the Red Lantern"? Many professional reviewers speculate that Gong Li's departure is the cause for Yimou's artistic slump, but regardless of the cause, Yimou seems to be on the rise again with this film "Happy Times."
Zhao (Bensahn Zhao), an unemployed, middle-aged lonely factory worker longs for a wife. After being jilted 18 times, he decides to marry an unpleasant, domineering divorcee. While friends scoff at photographs of Zhao's large new fiancee, Zhao defends her rubenesque proportions by stating that the other 18 women left him because they were skinny, and as this fiancee is far from skinny, Zhao believes she will stay put and marry him.
Zhao, in order to impress the divorcee, brags that as the manager of the "Happy Times" hotel, he is fairly well-to-do. Problems develop when the divorcee contends that they need 50,000 yen in order to get married in style, and this is when Zhao starts to involve his friends in his relationship. Acting on the advice of his best friend (who also has no money), Zhao refurbishes an abandoned bus as a romantic retreat for lovers with the idea that the lovers will pay for their privacy.
The divorcee, who really is a most unpleasant character, decides that the non-existent "Happy Times" hotel would be the perfect place to dump her unwanted blind step-daughter, Ying, and before Zhao realizes it, he is responsible for the neglected, frail blind teenage girl. Zhao's faulty logic, accompanied by his unrelenting desire to please and placate his nasty fiancee lead to further fabrications and eventually to disaster.
The title of the DVD, "Happy Times," is ironic--just as the "Happy Times" hotel does not exist, there are also really no "happy times" for any of the characters in this film. Happiness remains elusive--or exists in the imagination, at best. Zhao's make-believe hotel--a metaphor for life--is really only a gutted, abandoned bus that serves as a tacky love nest. Similarly, happy times for Zhao and Ying are elusive and fleeting moments spent eating an ice cream, and describing the colours and patterns in a dress. There is no lasting happiness in reality, and yet indulging in fabrications and make-believe ultimately also brings unhappiness to those who indulge in fantasies--displacedhuman"
A Chinese Hepburn?
Joseph Haschka | Glendale, CA USA | 08/03/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Audrey Hepburn has always been one of my heart throbs. Last year, the French actress Audrey Tatou, whom many compared to the winsom Hepburn, burst onto the American screens in the hit AMELIE. Now, in HAPPY TIMES, perhaps the same can be said about Dong Jie.In this English subtitled film that takes place in an unidentified Chinese mainland city, an impoverished fifty-something Lothario named Zhao (Zhao Benshan) claims to have found true love with a divorcée (Dong Lihua), and proposes marriage. Zhao's new fiancée is delighted, but says the ceremony will cost him a lot of money. Not admitting his penury, Zhao and his best friend Li (Li Xuejian) refurbish an old, abandoned bus out in the woods into the Happy Times Hut, a cozy retreat complete with bed and covered windows where young couples can "relax" - for a modest fee paid to our two heroes. Thus, Zhao can brag to his fiancée that he's a "hotel" manager, and business is booming.Enter Dong Jie as Wu Ying, the teenage stepdaughter of Zhao's bride-to-be, abandoned into the latter's care by her former husband, Wu's father. Wu is totally blind, and is treated with petty cruelty by her stepmother and stepbrother. For example, the former forbids Wu to eat the treats (Håagen-Dazs ice cream) she brings into the house for her grossly overweight porker of a son (Ling Qibin), who, in turn, steals food from the sightless girl's bowl. Wu is affection starved, and dreams only of being reunited one day with her father, who will by then have earned enough money to have her sight restored. In the meantime, the stepmother nags Zhao into giving Wu a job at his "hotel". Zhao is understandably reluctant, but finally agrees. He figures he can convince the girl that the bus is one of the hotel's outlying cabins, and can employ her to tidy the place up after each set of "guests". However, his plan goes terribly awry when, as he and Wu arrive at the site, the bus is being hauled off by a crane in a public beautification effort. By this time feeling sorry for the girl, Zhao concocts an even more elaborate plan with several retired cronies to give Wu a "job" as a masseuse in a "massage room" created much like a movie set in an abandoned manufacturing plant. After all, the girl is blind and she won't know the difference, will she? And having a job apparently earning her own money makes her incredibly happy, especially as she's now living away from her cruel family in Zhao's own poor apartment, passed off by Zhao as his hotel employees' living quarters.Director Zhang Yimou has crafted a simple yet lovely film around the lives of ordinary people. Dong Jie is delicate and winsome in the best Audrey Hepburn tradition. Her Wu Ying persona illustrates how little is required for happiness when one's life is basically miserable, and she demonstrates an inherent toughness of spirit that earned this viewer's profound admiration. Benshan works his way into the audience's heart as the man willing to become something of a father figure to the lonely girl. Lihua and Qibin are extremely effective as Wu's hateful tormentors. I suspect that if a film with an identical plot had been produced in America, those groups advocating the rights of the "visually challenged" would vociferously complain that the storyline was patronizing and initiate a lawsuit. Give thanks that HAPPY TIMES comes from a less politically correct environment, and see it."
Forsaken, Brave China
R. A Rubin | Eastern, PA United States | 02/19/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Don't kid yourself reviewers. There's a whole lot more here than meets the eye. You don't have to be a friendless blind girl in a city of ten million to appreciate human frailty and kindness. Yimou Zhang is a very fine director and his vision can be thoughtful and appreciated on several levels. China is still exotic to look at from my American standpoint. The colors are garish and bright. The modern city bustles, the young are hip and making it where they can. The old worker's, many victims of the poverty and cruelty caused by The Great Leap Forward and other catastrophic Marxist disasters, are still searching for happiness. Now, in their fifties, they look about and their old factories are rusting, glass office towers are going sky high.
I'm still not sure that the actress that played a blind teen is not actually blind. Either way, she's a genius. Her final scene, forsaken, blind, but brave China, venturing into the traffic. This is filmmaking.