Opens Fri Sept 6
We remember movies we love and we remember movies we hate, but we rarely remember movies that we just kind of liked. Well, I just kind of liked Yimou Zhang's Happy Times and yet, I don't believe I will ever forget it because it follows a plot track I have never seen before.
The movie's heart and soul involves the friendship between a retired older man, Zhao (Benshan Zhao), and a young blind woman named Wu (Jie Dong). Before we are treated to these moments, however, we must first endure a silly side plot about Zhao's attempt to raise $50,000 by converting a dilapidated old trailer into a love hut, where young couples can pay for the privilege of having sex. Zhao calls his business the Happy Times Hotel, and he runs it with the hopes that he will be able to pay for a nice wedding for he and his horrible fiancée. When the business fails, he continues to refer to it as his source of income.
The more thoughtful second act of the film begins when Zhao's fiancée gets sick of her stepdaughter, Wu, and forces her on Zhao. The loneliness that Zhao has arrived at in order to be wooing such a repulsive fiancée is never hinted at; instead we are treated to semi-raunchy sex jokes between Wu and Zhao, that turn into a tender relationship, which makes us laugh because of the delightful characters involved. Zhao's method of dealing with young Wu is to give her a job in his façade hotel, creating an entire "massage parlor" in an abandoned factory, complete with padded walls and recorded street noise. His elaborate prank is supposedly for the benefit of his fiancée, but it becomes clear that it is bred out of a growing love for Wu. The trick is both duplicitous and touching, establishing a totally original tone that is again jerked out from under us by a third act that turns inexplicably, almost annoyingly tragic.
So: Three unique elements combine in an utterly unique way that one would never think to combine them at all. The result is possibly the most original film that I have ever felt completely indifferent about.