Although Happy Times doesn't strike the nerves as deeply as most of Zhang Yimou's other films do, even mediocre Zhang is good cinema. With this film he continues his move away from his earlier tragic, beautifully-shot melodramas towards a fresher, less-measured approach, and his subject matter lightens up too (though it still has great emotional pull).
Happy Times tells the story of Zhao, a poor middle-aged bachelor who maintains a meager living on an endless series of tall tales and outright lies. In order to woo a prospective bride (a fat and repulsive woman who isn't a prize in any sense), Zhao concocts a story of how he is running a successful hotel – actually a short-lived scheme of converting an abandoned bus into a park-side retreat for horny lovers – which will soon earn him the money he needs for a lavish wedding. In turn, the woman dumps her unwanted stepdaughter Wu onto him, demanding that he give the girl a job at his "hotel" and take her off her hands.
This is where the film's pathos comes in, for Wu is a blind waif, and horribly mistreated by her stepmother, who dotes on her equally fat and repulsive son instead. Cinderella immediately comes to mind, and as Zhao tries to bond with his reluctant young charge, comparisons to Charlie Chaplin's City Lights are also unavoidable: like Chaplin's blind flower girl, Wu even pines for the operation which will restore her eyesight.
The setup seems headed towards a predictable conclusion until you realize you are dealing with Zhang Yimou, who knows he couldn't get away with a cliched happy ending at this point in his celebrated career.
Much talkier than expected (the film is based on a stage play), but with touching performances by veteran actor Zhao Benshan and first-timer Dong Jie, Happy Times is another success – if a modest one – for one of the best filmmakers working today.