Grade: B

Zhang Yimou’s style has certainly changed over the years. The Chinese director’s earliest films–pictures like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Ju Dou”–were period pieces, shot in lush tones, that focused on emotions of almost operatic scope. “The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992) pointed to a leaner approach and a concern with more contemporary subjects, but it’s only in the past few years that his projects have followed its lead and become really spare, shunning cinematic frills almost obsessively. “Not One Less” (1999) was naturalistic in the extreme, and though “The Road Home” was more visually sumptuous, its rural setting and simple emotionalism had a wonderful, radiant directness too.

Zhang’s latest picture, “Happy Times,” goes even further. There are moments in it that seem to be virtually guerrilla filmmaking, shot on-the-fly without the slightest technical artifice. (The effect might have been accentuated by the poorly dubbed transfer that the studio provided for the press screening I attended, but even apart from that it’s obvious that the director wasn’t concerned with achieving anything resembling a glossy look.) The performances are workmanlike, the editing sometimes ragged, and the cinematography rudimentary. At times the effect isn’t unlike a Dogma effort.

But “Happy Times” transcends the technical limitations and emerges as an oddly funny and ultimately quite affecting film. Zhao (Zhao Benshan), a paunchy middle-aged layabout desperate to get married finally has his proposal accepted by a chubby, money-hungry divorcee (Dong Lifan). He persuades her that he’ll be able to afford a pricey wedding, and then begs a pal (Li Xuejian) to help him raise the cash. At his friend’s suggestion, Zhao fixes up an abandoned bus and rents it out to young couples for their trysts as the “Happy Time Hotel.” But disaster strikes: not only is the bus hauled away, but when Zhao brags to his fiancé about being a big shot manager, she demands that he give a job as a hotel masseuse to her blind stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie), whom she treats callously while pampering her obese son (Leng Qibin)–shades of “Cinderella.” Before long Zhao is not only stuck with the girl, whose room her stepmother suddenly appropriates for her boy, but has to come up with a plan to persuade Wu that she’s earning her keep. The fellow and his chums build a phony massage parlor in an abandoned warehouse and then “patronize” the place themselves, eventually “paying” her in worthless paper. In a scheme that recalls Frank Capra’s “Lady for a Day” (or “Pocketful of Miracles” in the remake)–though without the beneficiary’s knowledge in this case–the friends grow more and more protective of their charge and go to great lengths to keep her safe.

One can take this plot in a variety of ways. Its mixture of sentiment and comedy may remind you of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” if you’re well-disposed to it. On the other hand, it’s left some viewers more than a little queasy–they see Zhao’s deception as a cruel trick, and his treatment of Wu not much different from the abuse inflicted upon the deaf girl in Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men.” To this reviewer the favorable comparison is the right one. “Happy Times” isn’t a classic–it’s comparatively slight, and falls well below the standard of “The Road Home”–but it’s a heartfelt fable about a crusty, conniving man who learns the virtue of trying to help those even less fortunate than himself. Given Zhang’s previous problems with the Chinese regime, it might also be designed as a allegorical critique of the Chinese government’s treatment of ordinary people–a topic that was dealt with directly in “Qiu Ju.” But even if you dismiss that idea as farfetched, you should still enjoy its good-heartedness and simple charm, which come through despite (or perhaps because of) the meagre production values.