HAPPY TIMES HOTEL —** 1/2 — Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie, Dong Lihua, Fu Biao, Li Xuejian, Niu Ben, Gong Jinghua, Leng Qibin; in Mandarin, with English subtitles; rated PG (profanity, vulgarity, brief violence); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

For a movie that features the word "Happy" in its title, "Happy Times Hotel" sure has its share of sad moments.

Which is not meant to give the wrong impression about this Chinese-language import. For those who may have seen the film's trailer, it is indeed a comedy, but it's rather bittersweet. Also, certain actions and deeds undertaken by a few of the film's characters could be interpreted as cruel, and as a result, the film might be seen as insensitive to the disabled.

But from minute one, it's clear that "Happy Times Hotel" (being advertised as simply "Happy Times") isn't meant to be taken completely seriously (at times you could swear the film is winking at you). And there's a definite sense of affection for the characters. That's a trademark of director Zhang Yimou, who adapted a novella by author Mo Yan.

The title refers to an abandoned bus being fixed up by Zhao (Zhao Benshan), a cash-poor, aging bachelor. He and his best friend, Fu (Fu Biao), are hoping to rent out the bus to young couples as a place to get "affectionate." But Zhao's odd scruples quickly force them to abandon the plan, as he naively tries to keep a watchful eye on the would-be lovers.

However, that setback doesn't stop him from boasting to his new girlfriend (Dong Lihua), who insists that he give her blind stepdaughter, Wu (Dong Jie), a job as a masseuse in his "hotel." Easier said than done. Lacking money, a hotel and any other options, Zhao and his cronies finally decide to construct a phony "massage room" in an abandoned warehouse, and they then pretend to be Wu's customers.

OK, it's an offbeat premise, but it's done with more sensitivity than you might expect (another trademark of Zhang's work). And the low-key material affords great opportunities for the cast. Veteran Chinese performer Zhao is a bit over-the-top as Wu's crafty, would-be father-figure, but newcomer Dong is sweetly convincing

"Happy Times Hotel" is rated PG for scattered use of profanity, a few mildly suggestive references and sex talk and brief violence (vehicular, as well as a brief beating). Running time: 102 minutes.

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