Happy Times (2000)
There is no doubt in my mind that Zhang Yimou is one of the world's finest film makers. He manages to straddle the bounds of both art house and commercialism with his catalogue of works that show a beauty and grandeur that often earns the description "painterly", whilst also telling a really good story. Happy Times is something of a departure from works like Raise The Lantern and Shanghai Triad, being a fairly realist comedy.
Small bitch: I am really getting sick of festival crowds! It's great being able to be the first US audience to see these movies theatrically, but I wish the films didn't draw such a crowd of incredible pretention. Having been told at the start that this was a comedy and knowing Zhang Yimou to be a 'respected' director, half the crowd insisted on laughing out loud at every single sentence spoken. The man next to me not only had an annoying laugh, but if he thought there might be any doubt that he appreciated the movie he would clap too. Thankfully, after 10-15 minutes, people cottoned on that it wasn't meant to be 'laugh out loud' kind of funny, and behaved themselves a little better.
Happy Times ("Happy Times Hotel" on the print) is about a group of 'retired' (laid off) factory workers who conspire to hoax a young blind girl. Not as callous as it sounds though, as their intentions are relatively good. The main characters are a 50 year old bachelor (Zhao Benshan) and the blind girl herself, played by newcomer Dong Jie. A small crowd of interesting friends and the gargantuan love interest/stepmother of the leads pad out the cast, which mostly plays out in a couple of small locations - two cramped flats, a sprawling abandoned warehouse, and a delapidated bus.
It's very much a character piece, focussing mainly on the relationship that develops between Zhao Benshan and Dong Jie, thrust together under circumstances that neither planned. It's a tender story... a little bit happy, a little bit sad. Bittersweet I guess, but only slightly bitter.
Zhang Yimou forgoes his usual luscious cinematography for quite a naturalistic feel. Apparently he used "hidden cameras" to shoot some of it, but I've no idea what that means (maybe the street scenes?). It's quite a simple piece, a light 95 minutes long, yet still crafted with the dexterity and care that Zhang Yimou always brings to a film. Being a character piece, it is very much dependent on the performances for success - Zhang could coax an oscar winner out of a mannequin, but Dong Jie here is especially good. If I hadn't seen her walking around the theatre unattended, I would certainly have believed she was genuinely blind (this is not an easy thing to act), and her emotional expression is spot on too. You couldn't possibly not care for her character, or that of Zhao Benshan.
Zhang Yimou and Dong Jie were present for Q&A at the end of the movie... Dong Jie just thanked everybody in the vicinity and blushed a lot, Zhang told us that he'd wanted to do quite a simple character piece in order to draw attention back to the ordinary lives of ordinary people in the current times of economic change in China... or something like that I think he definitely wanted to resist any attempts to put a political interpretation on the movie though (something that US audiences often seem compelled to do with Asian cinema).
The movie might be quite 'slight' in Zhang Yimou's filmography - it's unlikely to win any oscars for him, but it is a nicely made movie that I think everybody can enjoy.