Has anyone noticed leading actresses in Zhang Yi Mou’s films have been getting younger and younger?!
OK, small digression — let’s get back to Happy Times. When I think back to Zhang Yi Mou films, the word that I invariably end up using to describe his work is “intense” — the experience for the audience, the film itself, the landscape, the music — unforgettable. His older films had a lot of urgency, tension, you could feel the blood, sweat and tears on the characters faces as they faced the whole gamut: sexist cruelty, war, death, moral indignity or judicial injustice [Raise The Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, To Live and The Story of Qiu Ju]. So what is Happy Times like?
Zhao [Zhao Ben Shan] is desperate to get married, even if it means lying through his teeth about his financial wellbeing [“I run a hotel!”] and even if the object of his desire is a manipulative horrowshow of a woman [Dong Li Hua]. Even if it means taking care of Wu Ying [Dong Jie], said horrorshow woman’s blind stepdaughter. Even if means going to great lengths to dupe Wu Ying into thinking that she’s working in the massage parlour in his hotel [set in an abandoned warehouse, old construction materials masquerading as furniture and Zhao’s friends as hapless massage customers.] All I can say is he sure is a lucky man to have friends who went through such elaborate pains to fool her. That or they were bored out of their minds.
In his latest outing, the feelings raised are strong but not as intense and it’s city grime we’re talking about instead of rural earth. Since he started his modern day Chinese trilogy with Not One Less [or Keep Cool, depending on how fickle you are] some are convinced that Happy Times is evidence that he has mellowed out.
Sure Happy Times is a little too cute at times and the narrative is a real stretch but there’s enough sincerity in the whole thing to save it from going down the hole. Whereas the tone of previous work ran from plain tragic to downright suicidal [see Shanghai Triad], the feeling to Happy Times can be described as bittersweet. There’s still plenty of old Zhang to savour — his astute characterisations are broader here but still spot on, the supporting characters are especially funny, bordering on caricatures but still endearing. As is his fluid direction, good pacing, gentle humour and his amazing ability to pick the right people for the roles. I can’t think of a single instance in his other work where the actors were any less than astounding [Ge You, Li Bao Tian, Jiang Wen, Gong Li, and Zhang Zi Yi to name a few and the countless supporting actors who are brilliant]. Dong Jie is very impressive here as is Zhao Ben Shan. The result may not have been wholly successful, but it’s still a very engrossing film.
My theory is he’s just lulling just into thinking he has mellowed out and then wowing us with Hero, his next film [swordplay epic, the cast of Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen is enough to knock you off your chair]. I bet he still has a few tricks up his sleeve.