Happy Times
2 out of 5 starsaka Happy Times Hotel
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E
happy times After a series of stunningly stylish films (from Ju Dou to Not One Less) it's somewhat of a surprise that Zhang Yimou has made such a ragged, unassuming little melodrama. It's about a middle aged bachelor Zhao (Zhao Benshan) who finally finds a woman (Dong Lihua) willing to become his wife. But she's a real piece of work--larger than life in almost every way, with a pampered, lazy son (Leng Qibin) and a blind stepdaughter Wu (Dong Jie), who she scorns Cinderella style. Zhao has lied by saying he manages the Happy Times Hotel. So the woman talks Zhao into taking Wu off her hands to work in the hotel as a masseuse. Zhao and his friends build a fake hotel in an abandoned factory to try to fool Wu--certainly she can't "see" through their charade. Or can she?

The best thing about the film is the tentative and tender bond that develops between Zhao and Wu, which is very nicely played out and cleverly shaded in various ways. These two discover an unusual and unexpected happiness together in a tentative uncle-niece sort of relationship. And while the understatement is somewhat refreshing, it's also thin and underdeveloped. And more than a little unbelievable, especially as it rolls toward a conclusion that is horribly bleak and at the same time far too schmaltzy and sweet. Meanwhile, the filmmaking itself is simplistic and extremely basic, rarely offering insight into the characters or adding depth to the situations. There are all kinds of interesting themes at work here, but they seem only partially developed, which at times is nice as it lets us work out the things for ourselves and apply them to our own cultural background. On the other hand, it tells us very little about the characters themselves, their society or their relationships. So while the film does touch us lightly with its emotional resonance, it also leaves us out in the cold.

cert PG themes, language 23.Sep.02

dir Zhang Yimou
scr Gui Zi
with Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie, Dong Lihua, Fu Biao, Li Xuejian, Leng Qibin, Niu Ben, Gong Jinghua, Zhang Hongjie, Zhao Bingkun
release 27.Sep.02
01/China 1h36

Wicked stepmother. What Zhao sees in her is anyone's guess (Dong Lihua and Zhao Benshan)...

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2002 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall

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