Dir: Zhang Yimou. China/US. 2000. 96mins
The first film from Edward R Pressman and Terrence Malick's Sunflower Productions, Zhang Yimou 's Happy Times is a Chaplinesque sentimental comedy which has its moments of greatness. Even during the more pedestrian scenes, it is difficult not to be warmed by this winning tale of the relationship between a blind girl and her reluctant benefactor . Its People's Republic production values - including some kitchen-scissors editing and over-sentimental orchestral back-up on the handkerchief scenes - will prevent this from becoming another Life Is Beautiful. But propelled by the combined might of 20th Century Fox (which has worldwide rights to the film) and US distributor Sony Pictures Classics, Happy Times should extend the cine-literate international audience captured by Yimou's previous outings, Not One Less and The Road Home.
The film opens in a corner bar in brash new Beijing, where Zhao is sweet-talking a huge woman with enough spare tyres to supply a rally team. Despite having fallen on hard times, Zhao is nevertheless determined that this, his 18th attempt to find himself a wife via a dating agency, will be the one that works. So he pretends that raising the huge sum of money his prospective spouse demands for a decent wedding is no problem - and thus begins the series of bluffs and lies that powers the rest of the plot. When his best friend and sidekick Li talks Zhao into making some money by sprucing up an abandoned bus and turning it into a refuge for courting couples, the latter boasts to his pneumatic sweetheart that he is a hotel owner. She promptly talks him into giving Wu Ying, her blind stepdaughter, a job, so that she can get her out of the house and redecorate her room for her hulk of a son.
To reveal much more would put a spoiler on a plot that follows the classic "now get out of this one" road to comedy. Zhao Benshan is perfect as the dim but good-hearted suitor and reluctant foster father, while first-time actress Dong Jie puts in a moving performance as the downtrodden blind stepdaughter who comes out of her taciturn shell as soon as she realises that she has fallen among good people. There are scenes of the purest silent comedy that hark back to the Chaplin of City Lights, as when Zhou, attempting to tiptoe out of his apartment, is forced to backtrack by the arrival of Wu Ying. As in Zimou's last purely comic film, the underrated Keep Cool, the contradictions and confusions of present-day urban China fuel much of the underlying humour, from the kitsch interior of the evil stepmother's flat to Li's garish Popeye and Olive Oil T-shirt to repeated digs at the latest New Chinese status symbol, Haagen-Dazs ice-cream.
The almost-final scene - when the letter of a person who can't be there is read out to the tape-recorded voice of another person who can't be there - is both moving and profound. It also touches on the themes of what is fake and what is genuine and - in one of the many echoes of Life Is Beautiful - how the stories we invent can take on their own emotional truth. This said, there is a hasty feel to Happy Times, as if it was shot in two weeks. Hyperactive Zimou was probably already thinking about his next project - the $17m action epic Hero.
Prod cos: Guangxi Film Studio, Sunflower Productions
Int'l sales: 20th Century Fox International
Prod: Zhao Yu, Edward R Pressman, Terrence Malick, Wang Wei
Scr: Gui Zi, from the novel Shifu, Yue Lai Yue Youmo by Mo Yan.
Cinematography: Hou Yong
Prod des: Cao Jiuping
Ed: Zhai Ru
Music: San Bao
Main cast: Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie, Li Xue Jian, Gong Jing Hua, Dong Lihua