Some Quick Thoughts on Zhang Yimou’s Happy TImes
, the newest film by Zhang Yimou, is both the slightest and, in some ways, the most interesting of his three post-Gong Li , post-large scale dramas (my accounting doe not include Keep Cool
, the only Zhang Yimou film that I’ve not seen, and from all accounts a seemingly transitional work; as an aside, whatever happened to Gong Li, she was in Chen Kaige’s sumptuous Emperor and the Assassin
and Wayne Wang’s dreadful Chinese Box
, and then she married some Hong Kong millionaire and seemingly dropped off the cinema landscape).
First a quick look at Zhang Yimou's two previous films: Not One Less
featured a great, tenacious lead performance by Wei Minzhi, some clever comedy based on her pedagogical methods, and a great final scene with all of the school children utilizing their school’s new bounty, as each of them writes a single Chinese character on the blackboard, with brightly colored chalk; The Road Home
was a deceptively simple, yet heartfelt pastoral romance with a great performance by Zhang Zhiyi, beautiful cinematography (a constant in Zhang Yimou’s oeuvre, which I guess is befitting a former cinematographer; Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his review of Shanghai Triad
favorably compared Zhang Yimou’s work to Josef Von Sternberg), and some interesting editing, especially his usage of repetition. The ending of both of these films induced tears in this viewer, tears which I thought were earned, even if they were earned by a emotional machine as well-oiled as any Hollywood confection.
Actually this brings up two points. First, that Hollywood could learn how to make more effective tearjerkers by observing Zhang Yimou’s simpler techniques; and second, I think Zhang Yimou’s films have suffered unfair criticism because they were partly produced by American,er, well Japanese money and have pandered sentimentality to the Western art house crowd (one of Happy Times
producers is Terence Malick). My reaction is, who cares, if it is so well done, even if I think there are better directors working in China today. We shouldn’t kid ourselves though, even I think that Zhang Yimou’s best films were produced almost a decade ago.
How does this quick run through of Zhang Yimou’s recent work fit into my viewing of Happy Times
? Well, it shares his most recent work’s more contemporary spin (well, The Road Home
takes place in the 1960s) and simpler aesthetic. However, I found myself much less emotionally involved in the story, which on paper sounds like something out of Dickens or some other Victorian era melodrama. Middle-aged retiree, and consummate bullshit artist, Zhao is desperate to get married, so desperate that he gets engaged immediately after his first meeting with an overweight woman more interested in his pocketbook than him (she demands a 50,000 yuan wedding right away).
Zhao needs money, and is talked into opening “The Happy Times Hut,” by his friend Fu. “The Happy Times Hut,” is an abandoned bus that they refurbish to allow young couple to, well couple. However, Zhao exaggerates and misrepresents the hut as a luxury hotel to his fiancee. Eventually, Zhao’s fiancee pawns off her stepdaughter Little Wu, a blind girl whose father ran off without her, thinking that Zhao can give her a job (the fiancee, and her spoiled, slovenly child are portrayed as little more than fairy tale like wicked step-relatives). Of course, they bond, especially after Zhao and his motley band of retiree friends create a fake luxury massage parlor, at first for his benefit, and than for hers, creating a fantasy world for her (and them) to exist within. Of course, Zhao and Little Wu bond, but if you think you know how this is going to end you are dead wrong, and this is what I liked best of what I thought was a rather average movie (that and Zhao Benshan’s lead performance; Zhang Yimou still has a knack with working with actors, even if the actress playing Little Wu, a former dancer, is fairly boring when compared with his last couple of leading ladies).
Not to overstate my views, but the ending of the film is what makes the film very interesting(SPOILERS). Zhao discovers that his fiancee has found out about his lies and left him for another man; he gets drunk, gets beat up, and then, recovering in a restaurant, writes a fake letter to Little Wu, purportedly from her father, in order to cheer her up. After finishing the note, he walks out of the restaurant late at night, and gets hit by a truck. Suffering severe trauma, Zhao is in a coma. Fu finds the note and resolves to honor his friends wishes and read the letter to Little Wu. However, when he goes to Zhao’s apartment, where Wu was staying, she is gone, leaving behind a tape recording. Fu and the retirees listen to Wu’s message. She left it for Zhao, saying goodbye and not to worry about her. She also says that she knew all along about their subterfuge, but she played along (I spend most of the movie saying to myself “She’s blind, not stupid; though the movie makes it clear that she caught on pretty quickly, noting that her makeshift massage parlor, actually built in an abandoned factory, has no ceiling) because of the happiness it brought her. Fu rewinds the tape, and as he replays it, he reads aloud Zhao’s letter to her. It’s a rather somber ending, so unlike the triumphs of Not One Less
and The Road Home
, especially since Zhang Yimou follows it with a shot of Zhao’s broken body laying in his hospital bed, still in a coma. The film ends with a shot of Little Wu in a close-up. The camera stays in close-up as it follows her walking down the street. The music rises and underneath, you can hear the tapping of her cane against the street. Even as the image fades to black and the credits roll, you continue to hear the tapping underneath the music until the credits end. Thus the film ends on a rather ambiguous, somber moment, as Little Wu walks into an uncertain future, not knowing about Zhao's misfortune.