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There's no universal word for 'humor'

Movies can bridge cultural boundaries, but sometimes they also confuse them. Consider the tricky case of "Happy Times," a new film by the distinguished Chinese director Zhang Yimou. As I wrote in my review:

"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 client 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] '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."

In my review, I speculated on the chances of the story being used in a Hollywood movie (none), and wondered if there was a culture gap at work. I wrote: "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)."

Toward the end of my review, I confessed: "...if I found it creepy beyond all reason, that is no doubt because I have been hopelessly corrupted by the decadent society I inhabit. Or...are there moviegoers in China who also find 'Happy Times' odd in the extreme? ...The web is world wide and perhaps I will hear from a Chinese reader or two." I have. I have heard from readers in China, and from Chinese-Americans from Maine to California. And I am no closer to an answer to my question.

Brian Hu of Berkeley, CA wrote me: "I watched the film with another Chinese-American and we both found it uproariously funny. In fact, I can't think of another film this year that has made me laugh as much. At first I thought, finally, a major director has made a universally simple, humorous, and meaningful film that all Americans can easily enjoy and learn from. But reading your review, I'd reconsider it.

"Americans simply are not aware of Chinese comedic traditions. We may know Hong Kong cinema for its wild action movies, but we don't realize that a good fraction of Cantonese-language films are comedies, just as a good part of Hollywood films are comedies. Sadly, the truth is, violence translates well; comedy does not. Chinese comedy is often quite sadistic. Think of those Asian game shows that are parodied on American TV, where contestants do crazy things like endure freezing weather in their underwear while a laugh track of Japanese junior high students giggling plays in the background. Americans may find it cruel, but many Chinese find it hilarious.

"That's not to say Chinese people are sadistic. They just find some things that we find 'cruel and depraved' to be funny. On the other hand, I have not yet met one Taiwanese or mainland Chinese who enjoyed 'Pulp Fiction' or 'Fargo' like we do here in America. Chinese audiences find films like 'Happy Times' charming and affectionate, because although it's cruel, it's cruel on a simple, harmless level, something you certainly can't say about Tarantino's comedies. It's like Harpo Marx versus Neil LaBute."

And now here is Ye Meng of Beijing, China, who writes for, a site devoted to Chinese film news: "When the film was released in China one and a half years ago, reviews from most audiences and critics were generally very negative. They found the film dull, shallow and illusory. Most of them thought the plot was ridiculously illogical and setup of the story was too far away from the real life. They said Zhang Yimou's handprint was nowhere to be found and the entire film was carried away by Zhao Benshan (who played Zhao), a very well-known comedian in China. Not surprisingly, the film did really poorly in China.

"However, a small number of moviegoers and critics did found the film touching, humorous and bittersweet. They said the film was reflecting the life of the little people, their struggle for better life, and their simple and maybe even naive love to total strangers. Many social phenomena shown in the film, like laid off workers, shut down state-own factories, and disparity between the rich and poor, are all very real. What is not so real is the story. In fact, director Zhang Yimou intended to put the characters in a strange position and let them playing ridiculous. 'My goal is very simple - showing the audiences some humor and letting them laugh with a bitter taste,' he said. "'Happy Times' won't be my greatest work and it won't have very rich social content.'

"I think you will only buy the film if you can forgive the story setting and try to find out what the director really wanted to tell. The film somehow went wrong is probably because Zhang Yimou was incapable of handling comedy, and his own touch was outshined by so many stars, especially Zhao Benshan, he brought on- board to remedy such incapability.

"The ending being shown to international audiences is not the original ending being shown in China. The original ending is: Zhao forges a letter from the father of Wu Ying, the blind girl. When he starts reading the letter, which is filled with beautiful lies, for her, the camera is gradually pulled away and credits start to show up. Zhang Yimou and his writing team struggled on the script for almost a year and he said what made him finally decided to shoot the film was simply because he loved the ending. When being asked about the ending, he said, 'We can live with nothing but we must have dream.

This is a film about the dream of the poor people.' However, many Chinese audiences hated it and to make sure the film sold well internationally, a second ending was shot. The new ending is favored by Sony, the film's North American distributor. However, according to an online survey conducted by a movie theater in Beijing, only 9.24% of the audiences preferred the new ending."

And now here is Jue Wang of Bangor ME:

"Hey I read your review for the Chinese film 'Happy Times' and you asked for the opinion of a Chinese person. Well I'm Chinese. Sort of. I moved to North America when I was 7, and I saw the movie in its Chinese version a year ago, in 8th grade. I didn't find the movie creepy like you did, but I don't think it should be viewed as a comedy. Certainly, no one I know thought the picture was funny, as a whole. I'm not sure there's a genre for this movie (even in China).

Maybe 'overly depressing attempt at poignancy.' I think the problem was that the director tried too hard to carry a message. It wasn't wholeheartedly funny, but it also wasn't convincingly sad. Anyway, my point is, most Chinese people agree with you, this isn't the director's best pic. Well, I agree with you, anyway. I don't think it's possible to market this movie to an American audience, anyway. The 'creepy' part is hard to ignore. Even for China. Well, some in China."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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