A modern-day character comedy with a touching edge, Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou's "Happy Times" spins loads of low-key charm from the simplest, everyday materials. This small but delightful tale about a dyed-in-the-wool spieler who develops a soft spot for a blind girl dumped in his care looks unlikely to attract significant offshore business.

A modern-day character comedy with a touching edge, Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou’s “Happy Times” spins loads of low-key charm from the simplest, everyday materials. Only the second of his pics (after 1997’s “Keep Cool”) to be set entirely within a modern city, this small but delightful tale about a dyed-in-the-wool spieler who develops a soft spot for a blind girl dumped in his care looks unlikely to attract significant offshore business as it resolutely lacks the “exotic” smarts beloved of Western audiences and many crix. However, with the right launch on the fest circuit and some good notices, this could have a small but smiley career in some Western markets. Pic opened in China in late December to mixed response and only so-so business.

Following the rural-set “Not One Less” and “The Road Home,” pic shows Zhang more and more going for a purer, mellower style in which narrative is reduced to essentials and emotions and character are paramount. Again going for an unvarnished (but not unattractive) look, and shooting street scenes with a hidden camera for naturalism, pic brings a small group of colorful characters vividly to life as they find themselves increasingly trapped in their own web of well-meaning deception. In every respect, this is a far more accessible and involving comedy than “Keep Cool,” whose lopsided structure and outsized, Beijing humor understandably puzzled most foreign auds.

Zhao (well-known comedian Zhao Benshan) is a 50-ish, laid-off worker who needs 50,000 yuan ($6,000) fast to marry a fat, gold-digging divorcee (Dong Lifan) who thinks he owns a swish hostelry. Helped by his buddy, Li (veteran Li Xuejian), he’s actually hit on the idea of decorating an abandoned bus and renting it out by the hour as a love-nest — the Happy Times Hotel — for privacy-starved couples, but business goes badly when Zhao’s conservatism makes him insist on horny young clients leaving the door open.

During dinner at the apartment of his intended, Zhao is introduced to the woman’s blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (newcomer Dong Jie), a matchstick-thin 18-year-old left behind by her father. To get the girl off her hands, the woman asks Zhao to find her a job in his hotel and, to curry favor with his future spouse, Zhao agrees.

Wu reluctantly accompanies Zhao to a fake job interview, with Li playing the role of his “assistant manager.” In a marvelously played scene by the three thesps, which manages to combine humor with emotion and sidestep any accusations of exploitation, Wu quietly weeps as she recalls her long-lost father.

When Zhao takes her to the abandoned bus, he finds it being hauled away by the local authorities and eventually ends up letting her sleep at his place. Along with a bunch of other laid-off workers, he then embarks on his biggest deception — constructing a fake massage center in an unused warehouse (complete with background noise played on an audiotape) and getting his buddies to pose as Wu’s customers. As the complications mount in maintaining the deception, a touching sense of community builds between the adults and the lonely, disadvantaged young woman.

Inspiration for the movie came from a story by the well-known, often controversially modernist writer Mo Yan, whose “Red Sorghum” Zhang filmed back in the ’80s. Pic actually uses only the beginning of Mo’s story, and the blind girl is Zhang’s own creation — a risky gambit, rife with potential pitfalls of poor taste, but one that triumphantly comes off by making the girl a strong character in her own right rather than just a victim of practical jokers.

In a subtly calibrated turn that blends chutzpah and caring, Zhao dominates the dialogue-driven movie, whose easygoing appeal recalls Central Euro character comedies of the ’60s in which ordinary people try to make the best of a restricted (here capitalist) world. Dong, a performer from the Guangzhou PLA Song & Dance Troupe, brings a grace and wiry strength to the role of the blind girl that’s very touching, plus a sheer innocence that keeps the movie’s incipient sexuality cleverly buttoned down. (Dong won the role in a highly publicized casting call via the Internet, reputedly answered by 40,000 applicants.)

As Zhao’s best friend, the experienced Li matches Zhao line for line in straight-faced comedy.

Shot during the third quarter of last year in the thriving port city of Dalian, east of Beijing, pic is lensed with the utmost simplicity but with evident care in its groupings and compositions. In contrast to “The Road Home,” the occasional underscoring by San Bao is content to add emotion at key points and, just as it casually begins in the middle of a conversation, pic also ends during dialogue, as if the audience has briefly had a window opened on one of many stories taking place every day in modern China.

Happy Times

China

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release (in U.S.) of a Guangxi Film Studio presentation of a Guangxi Film Studio, Zhuhai Zhenrong Co., Beijing New Picture Distribution Co. production. Produced by Zhao Yu, Yang Qinglong, Zhang Weiping. Executive producers, Yang, Zhang, Zhou Ping. Executive in charge of production, Zhang Zhenyan. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Screenplay, Gui Zi, based on the story "Shifu yue lai yue youmo" by Mo Yan.

Crew

Camera (color), Hou Yong; editor, Zhai Ru; music, San Bao; art director, Cao Jiuping; costumes, Tong Huamiao; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Wu Lala; assistant directors, Xie Dong, Zhou Wei, Liu Guo. Reviewed on videodisc, London, May 5, 2001. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Zhao - Zhao Benshan Wu Ying - Dong Jie Li - Li Xuejian Fat woman - Dong Lifan Her Son - Leng Qibin Oxhead - Niu Ben Fu - Fu Biao Liu - Gong Jinghua Zhang - Zhang Hongjie (Mandarin dialogue)
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