happy times (2001)


director: zhang yimou

zhao benshan, dong jie, dong lihua

Zhang Yimou made his reputation with lush and stunning historical epics like Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, films that defined Chinese filmmaking but dwelt on a China that was disappearing as each film won acclaim outside the country. China is changing faster than even its government can imagine, and so Zhang has been forced to keep up with young directors like Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle) and Jia Zhangke (Platform), who seem more in tune with the China of the moment.

And so we have the world of Happy Times, set in a present-day Beijing that looks like an enormous new suburb full of shopping malls, high rises, broad avenues full of roaring traffic, and abandoned factories. Zhao (Zhao Benshan), an aging bachelor, once worked in these factories, but like many people his age, he’s been made redundant. He isn’t giving up, though, and we meet him as he finalized his engagement to an enormous divorcee (Dong Lihua) with an equally massive, spoiled son, and a blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Zhao needs a huge sum of cash for the wedding, and we get the feeling that his fiancee won’t wait too long.

Zhao is a decent enough man, but he’s also a habitual, immensely creative liar. In no time, he’s told his future wife that he manages a huge hotel - no more, in fact, than an abandoned bus in a public park that he young lovers rent for privacy. When his fiancee convinces him to give her stepdaughter, a masseuse, a job, he’s still fabricating a baroque fiction for the girl when they arrive to find the bus being hauled away.

Conspiring with his former co-workers and apprentice, he manages to have a fake massage parlour built in a condemned factory, with his friends as customers, paying the girl with blank paper. The lie, everyone knows, will collapse sooner than later, but the small joy they bring to the girl - and to themselves - makes them persevere with increasing ingenuity. It all comes crashing down when Zhao discovers that his fiancee has found a rich man and collapsed his vast tower of lies.

Zhang’s vision of modern China is a tiny bit richer, and less immediately bleak than the stark but carefully hopeful one of younger directors, but it resolves itself with an ending that beats them for sheer desolation. An old Chinese curse reputedly wishes one’s enemies the dubious pleasure of living in “interesting times”. There’s few places more “interesting” than China, right at this moment in history.