Happy Times

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Happy Times

After an astonishing 10-year run that included Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern, To Live, The Story Of Qiu Ju, and Shanghai Triad, director Zhang Yimou appears to be walking off into the sunset, perhaps finally worn down by his constant battles with government censors. The brightest star of China's justly heralded "Fifth Generation" filmmakers, Zhang has a knack for slipping potent social and political sentiments into everything from opulent historical epics to gritty, verité-style contemporary melodramas. While his storytelling skills have never left him, Zhang has lately lost his taste for allegory, first with 1999's decorous pastoral The Road Home and now with Happy Times, a warm and openly sentimental neo-neo-realist comedy with only the thinnest sliver of subtext. Turning a minor variation on a well-worn theme—the orphaned child and the reluctant surrogate father—Zhang remains a fluid, delicate craftsman with strong populist instincts, capable of winding through a story without a single wasted frame. But for these same reasons, Happy Times seems uncharacteristically lazy and complacent, like a once-great boxer who refuses to punch his weight. An Umberto D. in the making, Zhao Benshan stars as a poor, aging pensioner who wants to stave off loneliness but barely has the financial means to take care of himself. Ever the optimist, Zhao promises his latest fiancée (Dong Lifan), a boorish single mother with a bratty son (Ling Qibin) and a blind stepdaughter (Dong Jie), that he can raise 50,000 yuan for their wedding, a sum he knows he doesn't have. Zhao and his best friend (Li Xuejian) hatch a scheme to spruce up an abandoned bus in the park and charge young lovers to rent it by the hour, heralding their new business as the "Happy Times Hotel." But when his fiancée pushes him to hire the blind girl as the hotel masseuse, Zhao and his loyal friends oblige by spinning an even more outrageous web of lies, constructing a phony "massage room" in an abandoned warehouse. The presence of a blind orphan seems like certain catastrophe for the director: She dreams only of encountering her long-lost father and getting her sight restored when he can afford the operation. But Happy Times doesn't buck the clichés so much as infuse them with feeling, playing off the pleasant, unforced rhythm of two characters who pine for simple companionship. An unlikely third-act twist threatens to push shamelessly for the waterworks, but Zhang saves his one ambiguous shot for last, ending on a bittersweet note that briefly throws the entire film into relief. But everything else rests plainly on the surface, worth nothing more or less than the modest sum of its simple humor and sweetness.

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