The other night I was in that place – you know – warm, tired, but unable to turn off the tv, and I was just flicking through the channels when I came across a Chinese movie. It’s very unusual for any foreign language film to show on free-to-air tv in New Zealand (except for on the Maori channel). I kept watching and quickly looked up in the TV Guide to see the premise of the film since I’d missed the beginning. It didn’t really tell me too much, but I quickly got the hang of what was going on.
Zhao Benshan 赵本山 plays Zhao, a poor ageing bachelor with no job. Without many marriage prospects he is currently courting a large divorced woman, “Chunky Mama”, and tells her that he is the owner of a big fancy hotel, called “Happy Times”. Every good story needs an evil stepmother (?), and this woman fits the bill for this tale. She tells Zhao that he must find a job at his hotel for her blind stepdaughter Wu. So Zhao walks her around his invisible hotel, trying to make her believe it is real and convine her to go home and report back to her stepmother. When he takes her home after the first day, however, her stepmother has refurbished her room and given it to her huge, mean (very Dudley Dursley-like) stepbrother. Zhao has no choice but to take Wu home to his house. He only has one bedroom, however, so he gets permission to sleep in an abandoned warehouse. Having learned that Wu is good at massage, he decides to building a fake massage parlour where she can work serving “hotel guests”. Him and his retired friends have never seen a real massage parlour however, so they head into the city to check out what they look like, then set about constructing one that feels like the real thing in the middle of the warehouse. Wu seems delighted with the room, but they soon realise that they can’t let real customers in because they will give it all away, so instead they take turns going in as “hotel guests” and getting massages from Wu – but they also have to tip her. They quickly realise that this could be a very expensive deception to keep going.
I really enjoyed watching this film, but I think the label of “comedy” could be misleading, I would instead describe it as a “drama”. There are definately funny moments, and very heart-warming ones, but these are sprinkled through a story of struggle and hard truths. When I looked this film up after watching it I found out that it was directed by Zhang Yimou 张艺谋. It is less surprising then that the film has so many raw and realistic elements, both in terms of plot and details in each scene. The first thing that I was struck by was the genuine feel of many of the locations. They really reminded me of streets, homes, builidings I visited in China. The character of Wu, played by Dong Jie 董洁, is appealing and well acted. I think in appearance she is not unlike Zhang Ziyi 章子怡, who is just a year older than her and also played a blind girl in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers.
Other engaging characters in Happy Times include Zhao himself, who seems to imperceptively make the transition from dislikeable trickster to golden-hearted old man in the course of the film. His story, while outrageous in terms of the lengths he goes to perpetuate his lie, is very believable in terms of his personal circumstances and development. His old retired/unemployed friends who help him in his escapades are a really likeable bunch of people. These characters such as Aunty Liu and old “Professor” Niu are not only amusing but very genuine characters, despite their slightly marginalised roles. I think it’s really clever the way the film takes a rogue like Zhao, and somehow manages to make his deceptions, including that of a blind girl, into warmhearted, amusing gestures.
Since watching the film I have read that there are two possible endings. I wouldn’t mind seeing the other one since I found mine not just unfulfilling, but pretty depressing. Thanks again, Zhang Yimou 😛
Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie