Happy Times

on July 26, 2002 by Jordan Reed
   For film enthusiasts, the most interesting thing about "Happy Times," the pleasing new movie from renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "The Road Home") may be the formidable team of executives behind it. It's the first undertaking from Sunflower Productions, a company formed by renowned producer Edward R. Pressman and legendary director Terrence Malick. That's an auspicious coupling, and one that will hopefully result in plenty of quality projects.

   "Happy Times" is an offbeat tale of the post-middle-aged, marriage-minded Zhao (Zhao Bensham) who, while attempting to woo his current romantic interest, meets her blind stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie). At first, Zhao just wants to get Wu out of the house so he can canoodle with the hefty stepmother (haughtily and ably played by Dong Lihua), and, with the aid of some retired friends, develops an elaborate plan to keep Wu busy at work. But the relationship between them slowly grows stronger.

   Gui Zi's unassuming, unpretentious script rolls along nicely, but it's Bensham and Jie who, along with the supporting cast, really raise the bar here; they're skilled actors whose naturalness lends exceptional life to their roles. It's risky to include a blind character in a movie, as it immediately portends pity and moralism--even in something as accomplished as Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark." But the strikingly waifish Jie--whose Wu may be blind, but sure isn't dumb--doesn't allow for off-putting compassion. And the co-dependent relationship Wu develops with Zhao remains blessedly unsullied by melodrama. One shining moment in particular: When Wu feels Zhao's face, learning his look by touch on a crowded city street corner, it's enough to make the most stoic viewer's tear ducts leak just a tad, in grudging appreciation of the persistent beauty of simple human endeavor.    Starring Zhao Benshan and Dong Jie. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Gui Zi. Produced by Zhao Yu, Yang Qunglong, Zhou Ping and Zhang Weiping. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Rated PG for thematic elements and language. Running time: 96 min.

Tags: Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie, Zhang Yimou, Gui Zi, Zhao Yu, Yang Qunglong, Zhou Ping, Zhang Weiping, A Sony Pictures Classics release, Drama, moralism, relationship, coupling

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