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With: Dong Jie, Zhao Benshan, Dong Lihua
Written by: Zi Gai based on the novel by Mo Yan
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and language
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 03/18/2013
IMDB

Happy Times (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Massage Movie

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like Stanley Kwan, Chinese director Zhang Yimou decided a few years ago that it was time for a new direction. For Kwan this change sprung from a need to further explore his sexuality on film. For Zhang, it may have had more to do with his split with actress Gong Li.

For years Li served as Zhang's muse and occupied the lead role in most of Zhang's acclaimed movies: Red Sorghum (1988), Ju Dou (1991), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), The Story of Qiu Ju (1993), To Live (1994) and Shanghai Triad (1995). True to her exquisite, regal beauty, the films likewise reflected an ornate, opulent look with bold colors and rich photography.

But after Shanghai Triad, Zhang's films disappeared from American screens. In 2000, the remarkable Not One Less showed up, revealing a whole new Zhang. It was a small, gritty story, centering on lower-class characters and taking place almost entirely within a tiny, dingy classroom, using a mostly non-professional cast.

Last year Zhang delivered The Road Home, a beautiful and unabashedly romantic story starring Zhang Ziyi in a gloriously open-hearted performance. Again, it centered around a small lower-class town and just a few meager sets.

Now, Zhang is back with Happy Times, which screened at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival and opens today in Bay Area theaters. Happy Times takes place in a big city, but still manages to direct most of its action to a single set -- this time an abandoned warehouse set up to look and feel like a massage parlor.

The waifish Dong Jie stars as Wu Ying, a frighteningly thin blind girl whose overweight stepmother (Dong Lihua) treats her like yesterday's leftovers. (To rub it in, the nasty stepmom has an equally obese son who gets spoiled with ice cream and treats.)

The stepmother has a suitor, the enterprising but dead broke and slightly dim Zhao (played by comedian Zhao Benshan). To help win her hand, he invents a slightly shady business: He converts an abandoned trailer into a "love shack," and charges couples by the hour to use it. The plan works for a while and the money comes rolling in, but eventually things turn south and Zhao must keep everyone in the dark about his troubled finances.

Meanwhile, the stepmother forces Zhao to give Wu Ying a job in his "hotel" as a masseuse. Since his hotel is no longer there, he sets up the phony massage parlor and has his friends act as "customers."

Frankly, this plot is ridiculous -- using such a TV sitcom-type ruse as well as a blind orphan for sympathy. It almost seems like material the Farrelly brothers should get their hands on.

But Zhang nearly makes it work with his wise use of space and delicate timing, and the warm presence of Zhao Benshan makes the preposterous lying hero into something more than he reasonably should be.

And though Happy Times does not succeed as well as Not One Less or The Road Home, I certainly prefer this new Zhang to the older, more static one. These films feel more organic and airy, much more pleasing to the eye. I don't see Happy Times as a downward turn in his career, just a bump in the road.