At first glance, Happy
Times might be considered an odd title considering the
clearly unhappy circumstances of the film's major characters.
For example, the protagonist, Zhao (Zhao Benshan), is an
out-of-work, fifty year-old bachelor on the prowl, looking
for love, but as the country song goes, "in all the
wrong places." His last eighteen relationships haven't
worked out so well, but upon meeting a portly divorcee,
Zhao begins to think his luck has finally changed. For reasons
not entirely explained, our hero feels it necessary to mislead
the woman into believing he is a wealthy manager of a hotel.
And since Zhao isn't just poor, but an admitted cheapskate,
the prospect of keeping up this ruse seems daunting from
the very start.
With the help of his old student
Fu (Li Zuejian), Zhao makes over an abandoned bus, turning
it into "The Happy Times Hotel," a secluded retreat
for lovers seeking privacy in the bus's more natural surroundings.
Unfortunately, Zhao's conservatism spoils what looks to
be a surefire moneymaking proposition when he adamantly
refuses to allow paying customers to close the door, thus
ruining the underlying appeal of the makeshift hotel.
Later, Zhao stops over for dinner
at his intended fiancée's house and meets her spoiled
brat of a son (Ling Qibin) and her blind stepdaughter Wu
Ying (Dong Jie). Although the stepmother tries to put her
best face forward, her cruelty towards Wu Ying becomes evident
as the evening wears on. Viewing Wu Ying as nothing more
than an unwelcome guest in her house, the stepmother pawns
her off to Zhao, forcing him to give her a job at the Happy
Times Hotel. Grudgingly, Zhao agrees to take her, but Wu
Ying remains suspicious of the whole enterprise. Through
a stroke of luck, Zhao is able to keep the charade alive,
but when he and Wu Ying return home, both are shocked to
find that her stepmother has thrown all her belongings out
and moved her obnoxious stepbrother into the room.
With his fiancée unconcerned
with her stepdaughter's future, Zhao allows Wu Ying to live
in his apartment, pretending it to be a hotel suite. He
soon hatches a plan to give her a job at a nonexistent massage
parlor. With the help of a ragtag group of retired friends,
Zhao builds a faux shop within an abandoned warehouse. They
diligently lay carpet, cushion the walls, and record street
sounds from outside an actual massage parlor to help make
the place seem as real as possible. In comic fashion, Zhao
takes the illusion even further by having his friends pose
as customers, but soon runs into a cash dilemma when the
realities of paying her salary and tip money start to become
But even though the entire situation
is fake, there is definite sincerity in Zhao's motives,
making the happiness experienced by not only Wu Ying, but
all the characters no less real. But even among the laughs
and poignancy, a sense of impending doom pervades the picture.
When will Wu Ying find out? And how will she react? The
results may be surprising for some, as the film leads to
one of the most unexpected endings I've seen in a quite
a long time.
As with his films Not One Less and The Road Home, Zhang Yimou is able to take a
very simple story and add not only a layer of depth, but
a real sense of emotional impact to the proceedings. In
addition, while the film can be read "as is,"
there is an added dimension of political commentary going
on. Certainly things like the stepmother's cruelty and corpulence,
and Wu Ying's blindness could be read as more than just
factual circumstances of the plot. Although I won't delve
into the possibilities here, I'm quite sure cultural critics
could find ample fodder for political interpretation in
Social commentary aside, what really
holds the film together is the burgeoning friendship between
Zhao and Wu Ying. Zhao Benshan does a fine job in the lead
role, and Dong Jie is impressive as Wu Ying, imbuing her
character with a paradoxical sense of fragility and strength.
Happy Times is ultimately about two lonely people
longing to make a connection. Zhao has no family, and his
search for a wife has little to do with sexual desire and
more to do with a need for companionship. Similarly, Wu
Ying's horrible home life coupled with the absence of her
father, has led her to experience a life starved of love.
Here, these two strangers meet, and through a variety of
circumstances are able to forge a surrogate father-daughter
Certainly, if one were to look
only at the social conditions of the main characters in
Happy Times, the film's title could be construed
as wholly ironic. But that wouldn't be the whole story.
Even amidst the hardship there are true happy times for
these characters, fleeting though may be. Although the ending
could be interpreted as sad, for me, it is actually a happy
one, albeit nontraditional. The real irony comes in the
film's final scene when what needs to be said is unheard
by the people who so desperately need to hear it. But that
isn't to say the connection will never be made. There is
a sense of ambiguity and open-endedness to the film for
sure, and although Happy Times doesn't tie up every
loose end, it does feel thematically "complete,"
even as it leaves the viewer wanting more. The film may
not depict the kind of happy times people associate with
straightforward commercial fare, but in this reviewer's
estimation, Zhang Yimou's little film more than lives up
to its title. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)