- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

The Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is coming off a poetic masterpiece, "The Road Home," a transporting account of a village girl's infatuation. It was probably unreasonable to expect anything comparable from his next project, the sentimental comedy "Happy Times," exclusively at the Cinema Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle. Problematic at best, the new picture proves an unwieldy mixture of the disarming and the excruciating.

The title turns out to be a trifle cropped: The print identifies itself as "Happy Times Hotel." It is the nickname for an impromptu trysting place an abandoned bus that the blundering protagonist, a lovelorn middle-aged bachelor named Zhao (Zhao Benshan), is urged to promote in order to finance his wedding plans. His intended is a stout divorcee who seems to demand high maintenance in exchange for her favors. More or less penniless and trying to fake it, Zhao is relieved of the "hotel" before it can attract a steady clientele.

The prospective love nest is removed by a crane when municipal workers clear junk for a park site. The bus is certainly the biggest piece of junk in the vicinity. So the Happy Times Hotel ceases to be a factor in the plot after 40 minutes or so, scuttling expectations that the movie is going to evolve into some kind of sex farce with modern Beijing as a backdrop. Other fund-raising schemes that Zhao reluctantly solicits or contemplates also fall by the wayside.

What gradually materializes is an oddball fairy godfather-Cinderella relationship between Zhao and the proud but unloved stepdaughter of his transitory girlfriend. Called Wu Ying and exquisitely embodied by a fragile and compelling actress named Dong Jie, the young woman is blind.

At this juncture, the Cinderella influences overlap with Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights." Zhao ends up facilitating Wu Ying's desire to move away from her shrewish stepmother, who dotes on a single obese and monstrous son rather than a pair of hateful daughters.

We're informed that Wu Ying's father was the shrew's first husband. His whereabouts remain a mystery, but the girl clings to a fading promise of eventual return and deliverance. Unable to bear the thought of Wu Ying wandering alone and sightless in the city, Zhao escorts her to his small apartment and tries to make it appear as if he's not around, a strained illusion at best. To make the girl feel more useful, Zhao and his friends improvise a bogus massage parlor in an abandoned factory and then strain their resources by pretending to be customers.

This gauche but sweet-natured shift is definitely an improvement on the opening gambits about a mismatched engagement and a ramshackle love bus, but the director always seems to be groping for a harmonious blend of farce and heartbreak. It doesn't seem way out of reach, and it's easy to warm to the principal actors as the movie ambles and stumbles along. Nevertheless, the proper balance eludes the director so decisively in the closing sequences that he needs a prolonged tape recording of a farewell from Wu Ying to explain things she really should be telling her fond and generous well-wishers face-to-face.

Logically, there's nothing that should prevent Wu Ying from finding a new family among the people willing to adopt her. Emotionally, the material needs to tilt in exactly that direction. However, the filmmaker's choice is irresolution. The camera lingers on the heroine's hopeful but extremely vulnerable image in an attempt to pull something transcendent out of the air, but the story structure has been so quixotic and negligent that there's no foundation for a leap of faith or inspired stroke of pathos.

On the contrary, it's as if the director needed to back up and restructure the whole movie, retaining the endearing characters but fine-tuning them for a satisfying update of Cinderella from the very beginning. "Happy Times" exhibits traces of a charming movie, but the bell kind of tolled before Zhang Yimou could figure out what sort of fable he needed to spin.


TITLE: "Happy Times"

RATING: PG (Fleeting sexual allusions and comic vulgarity; a fleeting scene of violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Zhang Yimou. In Mandarin with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

Minimum rating four stars

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