Happy Times 4.0 stars

A happier experience for the moviegoer than for the main characters. The most confident piece of work from Zhang Yimou since his creative and personal split from his star, Gong Li -- since, to be specific, Shanghai Triad in 1995 -- it is done in a masterly but never showy style, and in a rich, rosy, rainbowy palette. It looks, if inflation hasn't dimmed the compliment, like a million bucks. The characters, on the other hand, would be happy -- or think they would -- with a sliver of that amount. The protagonist (Zhao Benshan, grade-A grimacer), an aging bachelor in search of a caretaker for his dotage, has found a prospective match in an overstuffed divorcée, won over by his undeliverable promise of a first-class wedding. The grasping fiancé, as we know better than her suitor, is no prize, weighted as she is with a pampered son of equal circumference and a maltreated blind stepdaughter (no ice cream for her!), whose pipe dream is sufficient funds to rejoin her far-away father and restore her eyesight. The latter (Dong Jie, a professional dancer in her acting debut) is almost a fairy-tale damsel in distress, all skin and bones, as fully revealed in her white cotton panties and skimpy pullover: there's something innocently, chastely erotic about the spectacle of a blind girl shuffling around the apartment in her undies, oblivious of its other occupants. What unfolds is a comedy of deepening deception, in which the would-be bridegroom, solely out for his own interests, becomes the reluctant rescuer of our blind Cinderella. The comedy and its cast of characters, however, are much more than just comic. They -- one or the other or both -- are also pathetic and heroic, small and ambitious, cynical and hopeful, all at once or in rapid succession. A complex mixture that approximates real life. No doubt the film, especially in its excruciating resolution, is a tad manipulative. It must be difficult for films about blind children -- think back to The Color of Paradise -- to avoid manipulation altogether. But to the extent that this is manipulation, it is expert manipulation. Gentle, deft, unforced. 2001.

Duncan Shepherd

This movie is not currently in theaters.

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