Had O. Henry set his stories in China, he might have come up with Happy Times, a comedy for which the adjective ”bittersweet” could have been invented. Zhao Bensham plays a poor, middle-aged bachelor who falls for a pushy fiancée greedy for money, and so becomes responsible for the welfare of his intended’s unloved, blind stepdaughter. Having pretended to be a wealthy hotel owner, he now pretends to give the girl a job as a masseuse, setting her up in a corner of an abandoned warehouse, enlisting his equally poor friends as ”clients,” and paying her from his own pocket.
”Happy Times” is directed by the award-laden Zhang Yimou (”To Live,” ”Not One Less”), who, for all his command of politics expressed through landscape, is not a natural comedian. Yet the movie is best when it’s deadpan, before it veers from O. Henry irony to Chaplin pathos. Keep an eye on Dong Jie, the young dancer picked by Zhang to play the girl. She follows in the bound-for-stardom footsteps of other Zhang discoveries Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.