Happy Times Review
Zhao is an ageing bachelor who finally finds a woman who agrees to marry him - if he can find 50,000 Yuan for the wedding. The poverty-stricken Zhao convinces his fiancée that he is in fact the wealthy owner of the Happy Times Hotel, when the truth is that the Happy Times Hut is in fact a derelict bus that Zhao rents out for the use of local young lovers.
When his would-be bride asks Zhao to find a job at his hotel for her blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying, Zhao is unable to refuse for fear of revealing his lie, so he enlists the aid of his friends into deceiving Wu that she is working in a massage parlour at his fictional hotel.
In this age of political correctness, the deception of a blind girl may offend some, but although humour is certainly derived from the charade, there is pathos and poignancy there also, as the film is always aware of the simultaneous cruelty and kindness of its character's actions.
An audience used to being spoon-fed may mistakenly view the film's characters as simplistic due to the fact that they are provided with little or no back-story, but more perceptive viewers will recognise the skill of the actors in giving completely believable portrayals that make it easy to imagine these characters living lives beyond the context of the film.
Despite the conventions of comedy, the film refuses to succumb to the temptation of concluding with a neat resolution and instead opts for a less predictable ending that may admittedly leave some unsatisfied, but at least is a change from the ordinary.
The disc is a single layer DVD-5 encoded for region 2 only.
A low bit-rate has been used for the anamorphic transfer, resulting in a soft picture and poor black levels. The colours are strong, in fact a little over-saturated in places. The print itself seems to be in reasonable condition with only a few minor print flecks making an occasional appearance.
The film is very much dialogue based, with only sparing use of Sao Bao's musical score and spot effects, so the surround mix is very much centrally focused, with the rears only receiving occasional use. This is certainly not a soundtrack that anybody would use to showcase their system, but it does what the film requires of it nonetheless.
English for the hard of hearing is the only subtitle option available. The subtitles describe sounds being played on a tape recorder at points in the film and give the name of the person speaking when this would not otherwise be obvious to the hard of hearing.
No extras have been included, not even a theatrical trailer. The Chinese release includes an alternate ending, but it is believed that the director's preferred version of the film is the one presented here.
Happy Times is a beautifully made comedy-drama with moments of gentle humour and poignancy. It may be Zhang Yimou's sweetest and most sentimental film to date, but thanks to his skill as director the emotion is never sickly or overplayed.
The UK DVD release from Fox is a lack-lustre effort with an unimpressive transfer. The US release from Sony Classics, already reviewed by Noel Megahey, is still the release of choice as it features a superior transfer despite also being a single-layer disc.