A Touching Film About FulfillmentBy Nina Kshetry
Written by Gui Zi, Mo Yan
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Benshan Zhao, Lihua Dong, Jie Dong
Mandarin with English Subtitles
Do you really need a spouse or a lover in order to be content in life? Director Zhang Yimou conveys a message in a simple and refreshing manner in the new Chinese film Happy Times, with a style reminiscent of his previous film The Road Home. Happy Times, however, is more akin to a light drama/comedy than a romance. It works on a theme that has been used in many films before about the human need to love and be loved, but this movie’s originality lies in the way the two main characters fulfill this need, and an adorable cast makes this movie very entertaining.
Looking for a wife, 50 year-old Zhao (Benshan Zhao) is ready to do whatever it takes to get married. He has tried to get married 18 times before without any success. As the movie opens Zhao is making another desperate attempt at marriage. Though Zhao is broke, he poses as a rich hotel manager in front of his girlfriend (Lihua Dong) in an attempt to secure her. His girlfriend then shoves off her blind, frail, and neglected stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Jie Dong), onto Zhao, telling him to get her a job as a masseuse in his hotel.
Until this point the movie is a little slow; however, the charm of this movie lies in the ensemble of characters that are Zhao’s friends. His friends lead a hand-to-mouth existence, and they are completely satisfied with being poor. They have such a childishly innocent aura about them, and it is adorable to see them in action. They transform an old warehouse into a masseuse parlor for Wu to work in. Everything from the texture of the walls in the room, to the sound of the street outside is crafted from junk. What starts out as an attempt to make Zhao look good in front of his girlfriend, turns into a desire to satisfy her neglected stepdaughter.
In this special world made especially for Wu, Zhao’s friends pose as her customers, tipping Wu generously until Zhao uses his entire life savings. In playing this game Zhao and Wu find the fulfillment they have been searching for. Wu has escaped the torture of her stepmother and for the first time in her life experiences happy times, and Zhao has someone who cares about him and whom he devotes his time to pleasing.
This is the first major role for both Benshan Zhao and Jie Dong, and they both give extremely believable performances. Their relationship is not quite like father and daughter, but rather like two best friends with a 30 year age gap. The joking nature of the relationship lightens the film and compliments the compassion they have for each other.
The ending of the movie is abrupt and unexpected, and destroys the momentum that has developed until that point. Perhaps ending the movie on a more upbeat note would have been more appropriate, giving the audience the freedom to imagine the relationship developing further. In the end, none of the characters have been developed to the point where one knows them well enough to empathize with them when the tragedy occurs, and the relationship between Zhao and Wu is only in its beginning stages. Zhang Yimou seems to sacrifice depth of character in order to keep the movie simple, but the film has such a great set of characters that it could have gained a lot from developing a few of them. The audience would have felt connected with them in the end of the movie and extracted more meaning from the movie.
This film is not as culturally expressive as The Road Home; there are barely any scenes of Beijing city life. This gives Happy Times a universal feel in which to make a universal statement. Despite its flaws, Happy Times is a touching film that is worth seeing.