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SHOWER (XIZAO) (director/writer/editor: Zhang Yang; screenwriters: Liu Fen Dou/Huo Xin/ Diao Yi Nan/Cai Xiang Jun; cinematographer: Zhang Jian; editor: Yang Hong Yu; 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); Runtime: 92; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999-China)
“Its manipulative and sugary story is set in modern Beijing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Zhang Yang’s bittersweet dramatic comedy, “Shower,” is meant to be a crowd pleaser. Its manipulative and sugary story is set in modern Beijing. When Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) received a postcard from his retarded younger brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu) of a picture of his elderly father lying on his bed, he assumed that his father passed away and decided to leave his business duties in southern China’s region of Shenzhen to see for himself. Why he didn’t phone is a mystery, since he doesn’t seem to go anywhere without his cell phone. The only reason I can think of him making the journey home is that since he had no contact with his father, Master Li (Zhu Xu), for a long period of time, maybe he thought he would use this as an excuse to see how everything is going at home.

Before he visits his father he takes an ultra-modern shower which squirts water at him from all directions, like in a car wash. In contrast to his current fancy lifestyle he enters his father’s bathhouse and into an old-fashioned world, one in which he doesn’t care for. He’s first spotted by his retarded brother Er Ming, who warmly greets him. But his father greets him apprehensively, wondering why he came. Master Li has run a popular bathhouse in the old part of town for a longtime and Er Ming is happy being his assistant, and is happiest when greeting the customers at the front desk. Da Ming could never see himself fitting into this lifestyle and left his widowed father to achieve material success and a new life far away from him. When he takes a long look at the place he can’t forget all those memories that come flashing back, and he decides to stay for the evening and return to his wife the next day. The conversation between the two is guarded as the only penetrating question the father asks is: “Are the noodles as good in the south?”

For Master Li the place is not just a bathhouse where his customers get a massage and a shave and sit in the warm steam bath pools slowly passing the time conversing and laughing and getting things off their chest while they are in a relaxed state of mind, but is a magical place where the old man knows he’s really good at what he does and feels proud that he could serve his community in this manner. Master Li also has a great love for Er Ming. He takes special care of the childlike adult and plays childish games with him, like racing around the block and having matches to see who can hold his breath the longest underwater. Er Ming reciprocates this love like a dog does to his master.

The steambath customers are a varied lot of mostly lovable characters, ranging from the elderly to an overweight teenage boy who wants to sing “O Sole Mio” at a neighborhood cultural event but freezes in public and can only sing in the shower. There is a man who raises crickets and arranges for bets on cricket fights at the bathhouse. Another has big business plans but none of them turn out right, as creditors come into the bathhouse to collect. One of Master Li’s better customers is having problems staying home as his irate wife is beating and nagging him, and in a moment of complete trust he tells the Master it is because I have become impotent. Master Li has time to listen to all these problems and give them his proper attention, as he is everything to his customers from physical therapist-to sexual therapist-to sage.

The film’s more serious message, is of the family’s estranged relationship. It relates that to the history of modern China. The story also looks into the father’s family roots in northern China, as seen through flashbacks. Water was viewed as the most precious resource there is, a healer of all life’s ills. The film also questions the modern world and its constant strivings for progress, which result in ripping up traditional neighborhoods and families.

As tragedy suddenly hits home for the serious-minded son, he is now viewed as someone who in his short stay has begun to absorb his father’s kindly wisdom for the first time and recognizes the need for a family to be held together by love. There is a real change that has happened to him inside, as he begins to look at what intrinsic values things really have instead of looking at things only as a materialist.

Director Zhang Yang has created a graceful, masculine film (all the main characters are male and the story is told from their view) avoiding for the most part the sentimentality that could have sunk the film, if handled by a lesser director.

This mainstream, middle-brow, foreign film was the winner of audience awards at festivals at Rotterdam and all over Europe and Asia, which means it clicked with varous audiences because of its universal appeal. Though, I thought, to make his point about the old and new China, Yang pulled out too many old contrived tricks — from the bathhouse being torn down and replaced by a shopping mall to a retarded brother stealing the film with his comical and good-natured appeal.

Yet what I found to be outright fascinating, was the depiction of the strong relationship among the family members. The wonderfully benevolent Zhu Xu (The King of Masks) is an actor who has a certain magical screen presence. The gifted actor who played his retarded son, Jiang Wu, gave a crowd pleasing performance. And, the equally gifted actor, Pu Cun Xin, who as the older son, was perfectly used by the director to signify how well the transition was going in China from the old to the new. But what interested me most about Shower is that it gave me a chance to observe everyday life in a country that has been closed to the West in recent times, and the film has done it in a most endearing way. Other than that, I still found the story too sweet for my taste.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”