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'Happy Times'

'Happy Times' is a comedy with turbulent undercurrents

Friday, September 27, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Epic costume dramas with lush production values characterized most of the Chinese films that began making their way to American cinemas in the late 1980s. In the past few years, movies from China have become more contemporary, often set in gritty urban settings instead of remote rural locales.

'Happy Times'

RATING: PG for thematic elements and language; subtitled.

STARRING: Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie, Dong Lihua.

DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou.


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"Happy Times," the latest film from director Zhang Yimou ("The Road Home," "Raise the Red Lantern"), follows the trend but compensates by telling an old-fashioned type of story in its newfangled environment.

The result seems more like a fable, or perhaps a metaphor, than a representation of real life. But that's appropriate because the characters in this movie, now at the Regent Square Theater, find their happy times not in hard reality but in the blissful acceptance of their own fabricated version.

As filmmakers, Zhang and screenwriter Gui Zi (adapting a novella by Mo Yan) create their own world. So does their protagonist, Zhao (Zhao Benshan), a glib talker skilled at exaggerating reality. But he can't lie his way out of advancing years, empty pockets and loneliness.

He sets his sights on a portly divorcee (Dong Lihua) and lets her think he has money. When he can't borrow from his friends, they hit on a scheme to refurbish an abandoned bus into a love shack that they'll rent by the hour. He tells the woman he manages a hotel, whereupon she insists he find a job for her blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), whom she treats as little more than a slave.

What to do? Wu has demonstrated talent as a masseuse, so Zhao and his equally cash-starved friends put their imaginations to work in making her think she's working on clients at Zhao's nonexistent hotel, taking advantage of the fact that she cannot see.

Cruel? Perhaps, but not as cruel as Wu's stepmother. Unlike her, they have genuine affection for the girl. They just don't know how long they can keep up the deception.

"Happy Times" offers unmistakable parallels to Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights," in which the Little Tramp is mistaken for a millionaire by a blind flower girl with whom he becomes smitten. He somehow raises the money for an operation to restore her sight, leading to the most poignant closeup in cinema history: the girl recognizing the Tramp as her benefactor while, with tears in his eyes, he smiles too broadly, a mix of joy and humiliation.

In "Happy Times," also a comedy with turbulent undercurrents, Wu Ying anticipates that someone will raise money for a similar operation -- not Zhao, but her father, who left years ago. Like the Tramp, Zhao is passing himself off as someone wealthier and more respectable. The most poignant moment comes when Wu asks Zhao what he looks like and he lets her run her hands over his face on a busy street corner.

Despite all the people walking by, it represents a rare moment of intimacy (emphasized by the camera pulling back out of earshot) in a movie where the characters often seem boxed in by cramped or dilapidated surroundings and there are very few shots of characters by themselves.

In the end, Wu achieves a kind of liberation in realizing she can fend for herself, while all the characters realize they have found happiness not in what is, but in what they choose to believe. "Happy Times" is not a typical Zhang Yimou film, but it succeeds in mining honest emotion from its prevaricating characters.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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