The title of Zhang Yimou's Happy Times is, at least in part, ironic in its split-level look at modern Chinese society. The title may also suggest a kinship with Chaplin's Modern Times, which its gentle comedy mildly evokes. Loosely based on the novella "Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh," Happy Times starts out as a somewhat raucous comedy and turns touching.
A late-middle-aged, unemployed B.S. artist named Zhao (Zhao Benshan) desperately needs cash to impress (and marry) his latest lady love, so he devises a get-rich-quick scheme; he'll clean up a dilapidated bus in the park and convert it into the "Happy Times Hotel," a pit stop on lover's lane. Soon, Zhao is obligated to hire his fiancee's blind adoptive daughter, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), to work in his "hotel." In the familiar Rainmaker twist, the con man turns from selfish motives to altruistic ones.
What follows blends subtle social commentary with sentimental romanticism, as both Zhao and Wu Ying learn to look beyond themselves to the not-always-happy reality in which they live (perhaps uncoincidentally, Terence Malick is credited as an executive producer). The comedy is old-fashioned (but isn't that a good thing?), with Zhao and buddy Li Xuejian collecting scrappy laughs. With equal aplomb, Zhang moistens your eyes and quietly critiques an environment at odds with the simple communal connections he orchestrates. Invaluable in this task is newcomer Dong Jie, whose pure performance augurs well for her career. Happy Times is no stunner, but it sure is a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half.