A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
One of the challenges of foreign movies is to determine how they would play on their native soil. Here, for example, is "Happy Times," from the sometimes great Chinese director Zhang Yimou. It is about a group of unemployed men who build a fake room in an abandoned factory, move a blind girl into it, tell her it is in a hotel, and become her clients for daily massages, paying her with blank pieces of paper they hope she will mistake for money.
On the basis of that description, you will assume that this movie is cruel and depraved. But turn now to the keywords under "tone" in the movie's listing at allmovie.com, and you will find: "Sweet, Reflective, Light, Humorous, Easygoing, Compassionate, Affectionate." "Happy Times" is a comedy, and has been compared to Chaplin's "City Lights," which was also about a jobless man trying to help a blind girl.
Consider first how this movie would play if it were a Hollywood production. Imagine a good-hearted everyman (Steve Martin, let's say) with a group of cronies (we'll cast Harvey Keitel, Jeff Daniels, Bill Paxton, Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito). They build a fake room and install a young, naive, blind girl (Christina Ricci), and go for daily massages, etc. Is there any way your imagination can stretch widely enough for this scenario to become a Compassionate and Affectionate comedy? I say not. There must be something cultural at work here. When American critics praise the movie (and most of them have), they are making some kind of concession to its Chinese origins. A story that would be unfilmable by Hollywood becomes, in Chinese hands, "often uproariously funny" (New York magazine), "subtle and even humorous" (Film Journal International), and "wise, gentle and sad" (New York Times). The movie's message, according to FJI, is that "the underpinning of paternalistic values which once protected the old and ensured a future for the young is now a pretense." Uh, huh. I can even halfway understand those reviews, because the movie sets up like a comedy, plays like a comedy and barks like a comedy, so it must be a comedy. It opens with a retired man named Zhao (Zhao Benshan) proposing marriage to a jolly divorcee (Dong Lihua), who meets his high standards for chubbiness. He needs money to bring about the match, however, and so teams up with a buddy to turn an abandoned bus into a "love hotel," which lonely couples can rent by the hour.
He tells his intended he is a hotel owner, but then the bus is hauled away. He meets Wu Ying (Dong Jie), his fiancee's stepdaughter, who is blind and has been abandoned by her father, the divorcee's most recent husband. Acting the big shot, Zhao tells them he will give the girl work in his hotel, and then enlists his buddies in building the fake room, paying the fake money for the massages, etc.