Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
Starring: Dong Jie, Dong Lihua, Zhao Benshan, Fu Biao, Leng Qibin | Directed by: Zhang Yimou | Produced by: Zhou Ping, Zhang Weiping, Zhao Yu | Written by: Gai Zi, Gui Zi | Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
“Happy Times” is a sweet Chinese-language film about pity, deception and love. In the film a poor fifty-ish working-class man named Zhao is seeking to get married. The matchmaker has brought him many women over the years. But none of them would have him because he was not rich. At last, he decides he should choose fat women. However, this particular fat woman also wants a good dowry. He lies and tells her he can get the money. This one lie engenders other lies. He tells her he is a manager of a hotel, which he is not. She then asks him to give her blind step-daughter work. Instead of owning up to the lie, Zhao says he will employ the abandoned young girl. Soon, he has a whole group of people caught up in an elaborate deception all aimed at giving the young girl hope. They pretend to have a massage parlor and pretend to be customers, giving her play money. These deceptions, of course, are her happy times. She can see through their actions. And is amazed that people would go through so much to make her feel loved. Their deceptions have been an honest show of love.
Of course, only people who understand abandonment and rejection can truly pity the abandoned. Zhao is on his last legs. He wants to be loved. And only in the last scene does the reader understand the depths of his need for a wife.
The film is sweet and perfect for children and adults alike. The director, Zhang Yimou, has made a film as heart-felt and touching as his other films, “The Road Home” and “Raise The Red Lantern”. Yet, there is the question of deception and pity. Should people really lie to make someone else happy? The troubling thing about this movie is that the viewer is tempted to wonder why no one ever just attempts to get the girl a real job. Why does everyone go to so much trouble to support the lie? At this point in the film, I found myself wondering if this was a cultural trait—secrecy and saving face—or just plain screenwriter manipulation. The girl is healed and given energy to face her life by an even greater lie purported at the end of the film. Can a pitying lie help people? The screenwriter’s answer makes for a lovely but morally flawed ambivalent film.