03 February 2016

Film review: Happy Times (2000) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is an ageing, unemployed bachelor who is desperate to get married, but has so far failed to meet the woman of his dreams. When he ends up on a date with an overweight divorcee (Qibin Leng) he proposes instantly, wanting a large lady "to keep him warm", and she agrees, thinking he is the rich owner of a large hotel. Needing 50,000 yuan to pay for the wedding, Zhao turns to his best friend Fu, who comes up with an idea to get hold of the money. The two men refurbish a derelict bus, name it the ‘Happy Times Hut’ and rent it out by the hour to young couples who are in need of privacy! The plan goes awry, however, when the council take the bus away during a clean-up of the area.

Meanwhile, Zhao’s intended introduces him to the son she dotes on and the blind stepdaughter she despises, Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Despite her pretences in front of Zhao, she mistreats Wu Ying, forcing her to do all the chores and making it clear she is considered an inconvenience. Zhao reluctantly agrees to give Wu Ying a job at his ‘hotel’ after pressure from his fiancée who wants her out of the flat. Hoping that Wu Ying’s blindness will fool both her and her stepmother, Zhao sets up a fake massage parlour in an abandoned warehouse for her to work in. Enlisting the help of his retired friends to pose as customers, he often gives them his own money to use as tips. Despite the fact that their relationship is based on deceit, a genuine bond develops between Zhao and Wu Ying, who appreciates the efforts her new father-figure has gone to in order to find her a job. Wu Ying is desperate to save up enough money to find her real father, who has promised to return one day and help her find a cure for her loss of sight. However, Zhao is fast running out of money to pay her, and Wu Ying may not be as naïve as he believes about the reality of her situation.


Review

This movie is not as flashy or stunning as some of the other ones for which Zhang Yimou is so famous. And while he launched the careers of several great actresses, Jie Dong is perhaps the least celebrated when compared to Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi.

But this is a very good movie in its own, more subtle, nouanced and delicate way. It is a story of the search of happiness, and of how one can be led off the beaten track to find it.

It is also a movie to be watched by foreigners to learn about daily life in China. Modernization of the cities and rapid growth of wild private enterprise, for one. But more interestingly, one learns how a single man in his fifties is a social basket case and must overcome impossible odds to find a wife. Which is odd, considering that China, because of the one-child policy, has a surplus of women. And especially a surplus of single women in their late twenties, thirties and forties: the women who, unlike their mothers, got an education and started a career, and did not rush to get married in their early twenties or ever earlier.

One also learns about some physical features the Chinese especially value: a man may look for a fat woman "to keep him warm". And both men and women pay a lot of attention to whether a potential partner has a single eye lid or a double one, which is highly prized (see picture).

The ending is a bit of a mystery: both Zhao and Wu Ying are posivite and energetic, and they could have accepted reality and build a father/daughter relationship and move forward together, but they don't. No one seems to have found their "happy times", and they don't have much hope ever to do so.

One or two eye lids?
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