Luckless, middle-aged bachelor Zhao (Zhao Benshan) lives in a squalid apartment and is flat broke, but he's got one million-dollar asset: his powers of persuasion. His friend Fu (Fu Biao) literally flees by bicycle when Zhao comes calling for a favor. Zhao needs help because he's promised his girlfriend -- a snobbish, detestable divorcée (Dong Lihua) acquired through a personal ad -- a lavish wedding. Hope arrives in the shape of a dilapidated minibus abandoned behind a burned-out factory; a coat of glaring red interior paint transforms it into a haven for lovers in search of "rest." Soon, Zhao's prevarications have inflated the minibus into a luxury hotel with an exclusive clientele. This setup suggests that Happy Times
(loosely based on a novella by Mo Yan) is shaping up to be a light buddy farce set in urban, contemporary China -- unusual terrain for director Zhang, internationally famous for humanistic epics with a historical, rural setting (such as 1990's Ju Dou
). But the film takes a turn when Zhao meets Wu Ying (Dong Jie), his girlfriend's fragile teenage stepdaughter, who is blind, fatherless, and the object of her stepfamily's hate. In his haste to give her hope, Zhao's lies snowball, and he struggles to continue the ruse of the "Happy Times Hotel" with help from other retirees from the factory. Like its protagonists, this film is tender-hearted and sensitive. It seems ungracious to criticize its sentimentality. Yet the old-school melodramatics are overwhelming at times, as when Wu Ying is denied ice cream on multiple occasions. The actors are not at fault for these lapses in tone. As the Chaplinesque orphan, Dong Jie is radiant and restrained, carrying herself in a posture both standoffish and vulnerable. Her performance is magnificent, delicately suggesting that Wu Ying may be a tough cookie after all, and Zhao Benshan is sympathetic and appealing as the lying schlub whose intentions are good. Nonetheless, it doesn't take a cynic to detect a strange aftertaste in their relationship -- naively platonic, despite all the time Zhao spends goggling at the unaware Wu Ying (who, to make matters worse, is made to wander through a few scenes in skimpy underthings). The conclusion is also improbable, wrapping things up on a tidy, mawkish note. This is a film strictly for hardcore sentimentalists, despite its straight-ahead depiction of the harsh urban landscape in contemporary China.