Zhang Yimou’s new film, Happy Times (Xingfu Shiguang), explores the many costs of “modern times.” The two central characters—Zhao (Zhao Benshan) and Little Fu (Biao Fu)—feel passed by in a rapidly changing Beijing, and when they try to catch up, instead of securing the cash they seek, they find love. But while the film is enjoyable (mostly for Zhao Benshan’s strong performance and the glimpse offered into life in contemporary Beijing), it never settles on a genre.
Perhaps best known for his lush historical sagas, such as The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) and Raise the Red Lantern (1994), director Zhang Yimou here turns his gaze on present day urban life. The film begins as a leisurely paced, broad comedy, with the likeable, down-on-his-luck Zhao, a typical bullshit artist who lies about his financial circumstances to the woman he hopes to marry. Introduced to the cartoonish, corpulent divorcee Wu Ying (Dong Lihua) by a matchmaker, Zhao, desperate to be married, explains that he prefers a “large, toasty” woman to keep him warm, and quickly agrees to the 50,000 yuan wedding that she requires.
Among the lies Zhao tells his betrothed is that he is co-owner of a hotel. What he and his friend Fu (Biao Fu) really have is a broken down bus, which they found abandoned in a meadow on the city outskirts. Thinking the bus could be a moneymaker, with so many young couples looking for a place “to unwind,” the two renovate it and paint its interior entirely red. Yet, when Fu starts calling the bus the Happy Times Hotel, instead of the Happy Times Hut, Zhao is troubled. He cannot quite stomach the fact that the most marketable aspect of his business is that it provides privacy for some quick action. When he accuses one young beau of bribing him to leave him and his sweetheart alone in the bus, the young man tells him, “You’re showing your age,” and insists that he gave Zhao the money to buy the couple a watermelon. Both Zhao and the young man are right, of course: the couple does not want a watermelon and Zhao is showing his age—in his conservative attitudes.
Determined to make something of himself, even if it is through his marriage, Zhao meets again with “Chunky Mama.” But now it becomes clear that something’s amiss in Wu Ying’s house. While she and her equally oversized son (Leng Quibin) sit on the sofa eating Haagen Dazs, they heap abuse on her blind stepdaughter, about thirteen years old. Little Fu, even more than Zhao, feels forgotten and left behind.
Here, Wu Ying appears a caricature of the evil stepmother. Though she sees to it that Little Fu does the housework and her son doesn’t lift a finger, Wu Ying complains to Zhao that the girl is an “inconvenience,” and asks him to take her off her hands by giving her a job at her hotel. Unfortunately, Little Fu is also a caricature, the pathetic orphan. Little Fu’s only hopes for escape are focused on two nearly impossible circumstances: a reunion with her father and an operation to cure her blindness. When she enters like a tragic figure from some Italian neorealist movie, the film’s tone cracks.
When the non-stop talker Zhao and his friend Fu sit down to interview Little Fu for a job at the “hotel,” she tells them about her life and her blindness with an honesty that brings them up short. Furthermore, she doesn’t believe any of Zhao’s lies. The scene involves a dramatic collision of lies and reality, one that the movie never resolves. Little Fu is trying to make money to find her father. Zhao is trying to get money to pay Little Fu. It’s a commercial world for both of them, and a fast-moving one. When Zhao returns to the bus with Little Fu, it has been fork-lifted into the sky. The workmen tell him they are supposed to “beautify” the property, and the simple pleasures of the bright red bus don’t suit this objective.
Beleaguered on all sides, and responding with grit and decency, Zhao evokes our sympathy throughout his ordeals. Progress is closing in all around this 50-year-old man, who still lives in an apartment with neither a fridge nor a telephone. He certainly doesn’t lack for imagination or a work ethic: twice in the film, we see him and his friends transform a place from nothing into something, as a bus becomes a hotel and a warehouse room, a massage parlor.
To keep Little Fu employed and his fiancée content, Zhao dreams up his second scheme, running a fake massage parlor. He convinces his cronies, a sort of peanut gallery of indistinguishable factory coworkers, to pose as clients, supplying them with the requisite tip money. Their preparations, such as recording street noise to play in the massage parlor, are fun to watch, but the coworkers’ “Greek chorus” reveals some surprisingly sloppy, amateurish scriptwriting. To its credit, the film pulls off the massage parlor scenes with a blind girl as the masseuse without smarminess and with a good deal of humor.
Though their relationship is built on lies, Little Fu and her new father figure Zhao gradually develop a strong bond—a development, however, that’s too schematic to be believed. The film never does choose between comedy and tragedy, and the final plot twist turns it into a failed fairy tale. With too many contrived characters and plot turns, Happy Times eventually looks as weightless as the Happy Times Hotel, suspended indefinitely in the sky.