Fat chance

Film - Philip Kerr on what really happens in a Chinese massage parlour

In the 1970 movie The Owl and the Pussycat, Doris (Barbra Streisand) tells Felix (George Segal): "I always feel so selfish sleeping alone in a double bed when there are people in China sleeping on the ground." These days, people in China are just as likely to be sleeping in cinemas, if Zhang Yimou's latest film Happy Times is what's on screen.

It's hard to believe that this is the same man who gave us Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Set in the present day, as opposed to the 1920s or 1930s, all it has in common with these other two award-winning movies is that the story concerns an older man involved with a much younger, and disadvantaged, girl. Come to think of it, that's what Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984) was about, too.

Not that in this case the older man is having a sexual relationship with the younger woman (as in Raise the Red Lantern), although I rather agree with that strange little Frenchman, Michel Houellebecq, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of thing. After all, they each have something the other wants. And I can't help feeling that Tony Blair's Britain would be more at ease with itself if there were a few more generous young women, like Anna Nicole Smith, who found it in their hearts to sleep with men of pensionable age. For one thing, it would save the NHS a fortune on Viagra; and for another, an old man in love with a younger woman is a much more efficient means of redistributing wealth than anything ever dreamt up by the likes of Proudhon and Marx.

Zhao is an ageing bachelor who wants a nice fat wife, as opposed to the more usual situation in which a married man wants a nice thin one. No body fascist at any rate, Zhao dreams of being "cosy" and "toasty" and courts a divorced woman who makes Jabba the Hutt look like Mrs Miniver. Even worse, the object of Zhao's simple-minded affection has a real Tamworth pig of a son upon whom she dotes, and who gives every appearance of having been digitally recreated from a drawing by Tenniel. Jabba also has a blind stepdaughter, Little Wu, a not unattractive waif of some 19 years who has a habit of wandering around in just her pants. Well, perhaps she couldn't feel where she had left her trousers. Poor Little Wu is treated as a near-slave by Fat Bastard's Chinese cousins in a way that reminded me of, well, Cinderella, I suppose. Not that Zhao would impress anyone as Prince Charming.

Anxious to ingratiate himself with the fat bitch he hopes to wed, and having misrepresented himself as a successful hotelier, Zhao agrees to Jabba's enterprising proposal that he should set Little Wu up in her own massage parlour. And it isn't long before Wu is giving massages to all of Zhao's pals in the factory where he works. But because they don't have any money, they pay her with pieces of useless paper that only feel like money - Wu is blind, after all.

If any of this sounds offensive or tasteless, it isn't - particularly because, as I said earlier, there is no sex involved. It might have been a better film if there had been. But in the People's Republic of China (where there is no Aids), a massage parlour is a place where people go to have a massage as opposed to the kind of rub joint in Wardour Street once patronised by Major Ron et al, where there are extras, relief, and the odd police raid to call time on the hand-shandies and BJs.

A massage parlour in China is something much more respectable, where the punters keep their clothes on and their dicks in their pants. (Or so we are led to believe.) In addition, Zhao's motives are strictly avuncular and charitable, for he cares genuinely for Little Wu and encourages her to believe that it may even be possible, one day, for her to earn enough money to pay for the operation that will restore her sight. Keen to help her, he is hardly able to help himself. And there's the rub, so to speak.

None of it makes a great deal of sense, because, as I said, Zhao isn't the sharpest piece of glass in the takeaway. But he means well, as do his dimwitted colleagues. No more sense is to be found in the movie's resolution, which is certainly a variation on the old chestnut that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. For here, the last reel containing the end of the picture seems to have gone missing. Happy Times? Well, yes, we can see the Loach-like irony. But as cinema experiences go, this one is a little like Major Ron's massage with one principal difference: it's all rub with no relief.

Happy Times(PG) is on general release