Shower (Xizao) (China, 1999) *** 1/4
Directed by Zhang Yang. Written by Liu Fen Dou, Mr.Zhang, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan and Cai Xiang Jun. Photography, Zhang Jian. Editing, Yang Hong Yu and Zhang Yang. Art director, Tian Meng. Music Ye Xiao Gang. Produced by Peter Loehr. In Mandarin, with English subtitles) Cast: Zhu Xu (Master Liu), Pu Cun Xin (Da Ming), Jiang Wu (Er Ming), He Zheng (He Bing), Zhang Jin Hao (Bei Bei), Lao Lin (Li Ding), Lao Wu (Feng Shun), et al. A Sony Pictures Classics release. 92 minutes. PG-13.
An excellent, warmer, gentler, kinder Chinese film, and a special case. It was made neither as a State project or with foreign moneys, but with funds raised within China by its American producer. It is the second of three highly successful features by the same director-producer team.. On the international festival circuit "Shower" has won many top or major awards (Toronto, San Sebastian, Thessaloniki, Rotterdam, etc.)
Chinese cinema is a force to be reckoned with nowadays. Movies shown only within China's borders deal -- in politically correct ways--with proud accomplishments, such as Mao's famous March. Others, including exports, have historical themes or at least deal with the past. It is unusual for us to see works on the human condition today, including about tradition and modernism.
Shower opens with just that, a shower. In a busy downtown street of the modernized southern region of Shenzen, a man presses a button to enter a booth the size of those portable potties used in construction sites or crowded public gatherings. It is The Amazing Automatic Shower which, like those clever Parisian street toilets (successfully tried in New York City but I do not know if they caught on) is a modern wonder.
The thing is rather like a mechanized car wash but now humans replace the cars. Water jets, liquid soap, rotating brushes, automatic drying are used in this fantastic People Wash. Our fellow takes off his clothes (real nudity here), safely stores them in a waterproof gizmo, gets a thorough mechanical going over, special massages, other treatments, and even an application of cups. (For the millions in the USA who don't know that the latter means, it consists of glass cups, heated inside to make a vacuum, applied to the back so that the vacuum raises the skin and theoretically sucks up bad humors and other enemies of good health. This was and maybe still is a common treatment for colds -- in Europe and in many other parts of the world.) This opening sequence of the film is by itself worth the cost of a theater ticket. I would like to apply for an importing license.
The Chinese never had it so good. But the scene, while wonderfully funny to foreign eyes as well as an impressive sample of Chinese technology, is also a serious, symbolic element of melding the old and the new.
Cut to Beijing, which is in the North. In what seems to be a popular, old-fashioned, run-down neighborhood, Master Liu runs a public bathhouse for men, with the help of his second son Er Ming. The latter always has an endearing smile, is mentally retarded, yet perfectly able to help with the establishment. The relationship between father and son is one of tremendous warmth and understanding, shown in discreet, un-gloppy scenes.
Er Ming's older brother Da Ming is handsome, chic, married, and a modern, successful businessman. He lives in the south . Having received a cryptic postcard from junior brother, Da Ming thinks that Dad is either dead or seriously ill. He catches the first available plane, he flies north... and finds Dad in seemingly good health.
The bathhouse is quite old-fashioned in an attractive way, spacious, well-equipped with hot tubs, hot and cold showers, steam rooms, massage-tables and the like. And it is more than a place for cleaning one's body. It is like the corner cafe in European, African, Middle-Eastern and other lands --and like the general store in older, rural US. small towns. For the customers, mostly aged regulars, it is a gathering place, a neighborhood club where talking, chatting, gossiping, arguing among friends is essential to life, where they cleanse their souls and minds. The elders (and some younger persons) drink tea, play chess, organize cricket fights. (There is no statement at film's end that no animals were harmed)
Master Liu is not only a host to his clients (a word that hardly expresses the friendly relationships) but a mediator and problem-solver. Some warm, often funny plot threads show this and add much to the film's atmosphere. The tale, however, is complicated by unwelcome news. Area authorities are going to tear down the entire outdated (?) neighborhood to make room for a modern mall.
Da Ming tarries awhile, behaves politely, but never cracks a smile. He must find that whole culture passť. Yet, as he prolongs his stay and more developments follow, there is a gradual understanding on his part, and like the movie's characters as well as for the audiences, comes a strong confirmation of how sad it is to have modernism displace yet not replace certain old traditions.
"Shower" is quietly rich in humanity, excellent acting and moving incidents. It has a lovely sense of humor, heart, sentiment --but no artificial sweeteners. There is even a flashback sequence (in old, arid Northwest China) which adds touching lyricism and symbolism to this first-rate urban movie.