Between 1987 and 1995 Zhang Yimou made six remarkable films: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Qiu Ju, To Live, andShanghai Triad. Working with actress Gong Li, Zhang opened the door to a stunning world of opulent cinematography and to a new strong and rebellious Chinese woman, a persona that shattered the stereotype of the compliant passive Asian female and presented a new icon of beauty. These films, like all great art, were both truly original and immediately identifiable. They captured and expressed a unique creative identity. Western art-film critics read these films as parables—fables set in the colonial past but commenting on the repressive politics of post–Mao China. Their great success abroad brought Zhang critics of a different kind at home. They charged Zhang with fabricating an exotic and erotic China served up for the “white palate.” These Chinese critics delighted in demonstrating the historical anachronisms and the lack of authenticity in Zhang’s inventions of China’s colonial past.

My own view is that those wonderful films are best understood neither as political parables nor as attempts to recreate authentic China, but as Zhang’s prolonged artistic meditation on Gong Li as desire, as beauty, and as subversive inspiration. Equally important was Gong Li’s extraordinary ability to discover in herself the emotional depths and resources to respond as an actress and to mirror and justify that prolonged meditation. Like much great passionate art, their films made sensual love the battleground for an attack on the order of life and not just on the political regime. Zhang Yimou openly acknowledged that Gong Li was his muse. The Chinese media never left them alone. Everyone in China knew that they were also having a love affair.

Then, rumor has it, Gong Li insisted that Zhang get a divorce and marry her. When he balked, the talented actress, by then an international celebrity, went her own way. Zhang tried to do without her, casting only female leads who had no training or independent standing.

For his first post–Gong Li film he chose a beautiful model—a nonactress—to play the only woman in the film. She appeared on the screen for five minutes and survives as a footnote in Zhang’s filmography. He wanted his second film to have the feel of a documentary and he made it without any professional actors. In a casting gambit that doubled as a publicity stunt he sent his assistants into rural schoolhouses to audition tens of thousands of thirteen-year-old girls. For the girls’ final screen test, Zhang filmed them as they stood in a crowded street screaming whatever came to mind at the top of their lungs. Zhang selected Wei Minzhi, the one who had the least-inhibited scream. Although he thought she gave a credible performance playing herself, he was not impressed with her acting ability. He advised her not to go to acting school, although she had been offered a scholarship. She took his advice.

Zhang was making a shampoo commercial for Chinese television when he auditioned the teenage Zhang Ziyi and gave her the lead role in his third film. Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director, discovered the first-time actress in that film and made her the overnight international star ofCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Last year, in a retrospective review of Zhang Yimou’s films, I reported that Zhang had announced an ambitious new project: he would be reunited with Gong Li and they would make The Great Empress of the Tang Dynasty. But the project fell through. Zhang moved on to Happy Times and another publicity stunt: an open casting call on the Web. The result is a disappointingly unambitious film featuring an unknown young actress in her film debut. Happy Times is supposed to be a bittersweet comedy, but no one in the small audience when I saw it was either weeping or laughing.

Happy Times is Zhang’s second effort at comedy. The first, Keep Cool,did not get an American distributor and Zhang conceded that fifty percent of the comedy was lost in the passage to a different culture. InHappy Times he attempts a more universal humor by borrowing from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Chaplin’s silent film is still well worth watching. He made it after the talkies had been introduced and called it a pantomime. The boxing scene will still make you laugh out loud and some of the moments between Charlie and his young heroine, a blind flower girl, are sublime. One can see in Zhang’s borrowings that he is reaching for Chaplin, but his directorial choices are heavy-handed and unfunny. Because Zhang is a great artist, even his disappointing films are worth thinking about. But Happy Times is further proof that without Gong Li, Zhang would never have achieved his reputation as China’s premier filmmaker.

Zhang let it be known that he was looking not for an actress but for just the right “Asian Face” to play the leading role in his new film. With that inducement, thousands of young women from all over China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong responded. Zhang found the face he was looking for on Dong Jie, a young dancer. His choice of actresses appears to have been a reaction to his Gong Li experience. Gong Li was the archetypal woman of sensual depth and willful strength; his last three actresses have been the virginal and vulnerable ingénue. If Zhang has become a control freak he has unfortunately gotten total compliance. These young actresses lack all human mystery. They are putty in Zhang Yimou’s hands and they play one-dimensional characters who could have stepped out of a fairy tale. The heroine of Happy Times is a Cinderella.

Zhang adapted Happy Times from a novella about a pensioner who is desperately seeking to marry a fat woman who will keep him warm at night. The story is set in the bustling port city of Dalian, where the matchmakers are having trouble finding this particular pensioner, Zhao (Zhao Benshan), a wife. Zhao is a loser who will say anything to impress the fat divorcée (Dong Lihua) he eventually meets. This is not a plotline that promises to cross cultural boundaries.

The original story had no young woman in it. Zhang added the young woman and decided that she would be blind like Chaplin’s heroine. An early version of the screenplay reveals that Zhang and his writers added scenes for the blind girl that were not at all integrated into the novella’s plot line. Then they hit on the idea of making the blind girl the Cinderella stepchild of the fat divorcée. The pensioner would go looking for a fat wife but he would find something better—a kind of innocent love, Wu Ying (Dong Jie). The pensioner and the blind Cinderella have a relationship that parallels Chaplin’s classic little tramp and the blind flower girl of City Lights. Erich von Stroheim complained that in early Hollywood films all the heroines, and surely Chaplin’s, were “eternal virgins” rather than real women. (The heroine of City Lights,discovered by Chaplin at a boxing match, was actually named Virginia Cherrill—one wonders what von Stroheim would have made of the name.)

Chaplin’s offscreen predilection for young women bordered on pedophilia, but their onscreen innocence (and his) was essential for the humor of his childlike Tramp. In City Lights the innocent tramp pays for the operation that restores the girl’s sight but is falsely blamed for stealing the money and goes to prison. In the final scene, the young woman with her sight restored recognizes Charlie, the down-and-out tramp, as the rich and princely hero of her imagination. It is one of those poignant Chaplin moments in which the tragedy of the tramp’s loneliness forces its way through the humor and leaves its indelible mark on the audience’s consciousness. In Chaplin’s film it is love at first sight and the tramp will do anything he can to help the blind heroine. They both have the innocence of schoolchildren, and theirs is the virginal dream of love, not the reality. When the girl can see the real world and the tramp’s place in it she loses that dream, and Charlie of course knows that he has lost his. But Charlie’s fool is too kind to let her be aware of his pain and he shares that sublime moment of shame and kindness with the audience.

Many critics have noticed the connections between Happy Times andCity Lights. Those connections make comparisons inevitable and all of them work to Zhang’s detriment. Perhaps Chinese filmgoers find Happy Times hilarious, and Zhang’s borrowings from Chaplin work for them if not for us. Henri Bergson had interesting things to say about the cultural boundaries of laughter in his book, Le Rire. He presented his idea in the form of an anecdote. He is visiting a provincial church where the cleric is preaching a hell-and-damnation sermon. As he looks around the church, everyone is sobbing except for one gray-haired man. After the service he asks the man why he was not weeping and is told, “But Monsieur, I am not a member of this congregation.” Bergson’s intuition was that laughter worked the same way, as an expression of a social bond. Surf cable television and you will find many congregations to which you do not belong.

Chaplin surely understood this problem. He had translated his own music-hall humor from England to the United States and from the stage to the screen. His childlike antics had an almost universal appeal. Chaplin also understood the special advantages of silent film: there is no language barrier, and he could do something that was not possible in talkies. Laughter can build on laughter until it reaches an almost orgasmic convulsive level. The funniest spoken humor requires us to lower the level of our laughter so we do not miss the next line. All great comedians know that the peak experience of laughter can only be achieved through pantomime. No doubt that is why Chaplin insisted that City Lights be a silent film: his audiences expected the belly laugh—it is a transcendent experience—as part of their entertainment. Zhang seems to have missed this and most of the other lessons about timing and humor he could have learned from Chaplin.

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Having spent two years finding a young woman with the “right face,” Zhang cast as his pensioner Zhao Benshan, an enormously popular television personality and the famous host of the annual Chinese New Year’s Eve special. Zhao may bring people into the theaters in China to see Zhang’s movie, but it is difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to play a desperate pensioner. Zhao is a tall, strapping man who radiates physical energy and magnetism—more a Chinese Bill Clinton than a Charlie Chaplin.

But the really mind-boggling casting choice is the boy selected to play the spoiled son (Leng Qibin) of the obese divorcée. The young boy is almost lost in his own flesh; his tiny eyes are like slits compressed by his bulging cheeks; his stomach is so large he can barely sit up. This unfortunate child and the obese mother who starves his blind stepsister are the unlikely objects of Zhao’s efforts to find a family. The surreal corpulence of the boy is a distraction, and when we watch him steal the only pieces of meat from his uncomprehending blind stepsister’s rice bowl we are reminded not of Chaplin but of Fellini. Zhang seems like a novice film student throwing everything into the pot. Zhang himself concedes that many people have told him that Happy Times looks like it was shot by a first-time director. He puts the best possible spin on that characterization: “I used a very different method to shoot this film, I wanted to keep everything as simple as possible.” The truth is that ever since Gong Li’s departure Zhang has been using different methods: nonprofessional actors, handheld cameras, filming through lenses that remove the intense colors that made his reputation as a cinematographer. In this film, keeping everything “as simple as possible” seems to be a rationalization for a halfhearted effort.

If Zhao the pensioner is looking for a warm body, the divorcée is interested only in finding a rich husband. She and her overfed son are caricatures of a selfish, greedy consumer class that has emerged in an urban and non-communal China. In her first meeting with the unfortunate Zhao she demands a 50,000-yuan wedding. But he is a ready liar and assures her that he is a hotelier and there will be no problem. Zhao then turns to his fellow pensioners for help. These pensioners, their factory redundant in the new economy, are China’s new proletariat. They will forge a communal enterprise as they try to make Zhao’s deception seem like the truth.

Dong Jie’s first appearance on the screen as Wu Ying comes when the pensioner visits his fiancée in her apartment. The frail Wu Ying, in only a thin top and panties, emerges from a small bedroom and feels her way across the room to the toilet. This is a moment of unredeemed bathos—Chaplin’s virginal heroine exposed in her underwear. The contrast with the grotesque mother and son could not be more extreme. Zhao modestly averts his eyes. Zhang forces his audience to watch and wait out the trip. He seems to be improvising this scene and others without concern for how he will weave them together.

When the divorcée sees through the pensioner’s lies she fobs little Wu off on him. The pensioner is supposed to give the girl a job as a masseuse in one of the hotels he has invented. His fellow pensioners help Zhao construct a fake massage room in the middle of their abandoned factory and they take turns having massages and leaving her tips until they run out of money. Their communal efforts make the blind girl feel useful and productive for the first time in her life. In a scene similar to City Lights the girl asks Zhao to read a letter from the father who abandoned her. The girl, against all reality, dreams of a loving father who will reclaim her and pay for the operation that will restore her sight. When Zhao realizes the actual letter is nothing but transparent excuses he composes a loving letter from the father of her dreams. On his way home to read it to her he is hit by a truck and taken to the emergency room. His pensioner friends retrieve the letter and, understanding the loving import of its lies, plan to read them to the girl only to discover that the she is gone. The blind Wu Ying has seen through their benevolent deceptions and understood the generosity that motivated them. She leaves a tape recording conveying her gratitude; they have given her the courage to go off on her own. As one of the pensioners replays the tape, he reads the loving falsehoods of Zhao’s make-believe father to the sounds of Little Wu’s voice. The camera cuts first to Zhao in the hospital and then to the blind girl making her uncertain way through the busy city.

Zhang, like Chaplin, shows us that dreams and deceptions can sustain us even as we know the truth. In the last moments of this film, when the loving letter is read to the sounds of the tape recorder, we see that Zhang’s name might be mentioned in the same sentence as Chaplin. Zhang is a great artist who deserves our patience even when he makes a film as bad as Happy Times. But it strains that patience to report that his next film, already finished, is a kung fu movie.