Shower arrives in commercial distribution after winning fans on the festival circuit, and deservedly so. It’s a charming film that gains weight through skillful character development and maintains a sense of humor laced with fondness for its characters even as it gently prods their human weaknesses.
As the main titles run, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) stops at a modern street minishower, where, after gaining entry with a coin, his clothes go out on a conveyor belt for cleaning while he has a fantasy shower with multiple shower heads and rolling mechanized scrubbers. It’s a human car wash and a perfect setup of theme – the modern, the technological, the impersonal vs. the old fashioned, the traditional, the human touch.
Da Ming, who is living a contemporary big-city, business life, returns to his family home in Beijing where his elderly father (Zhu Xu, King of Masks) owns a traditional bathhouse which he runs with the help of his other son, mentally challenged Er Ming (Jiang Wu). While his brother welcomes Da Ming lovingly, his father is cool; their separation goes beyond living in different cities – it is a chasm separating different generations and different values. How things work out for them provides the dramatic backbone of the film, but the central theme alone understates the wealth of observation that writer/director Zhang Yang (Spicy Love Soup) packs into a rich hour and a half.
Most of the film takes place in the bathhouse and Yang explores the details of what goes on there – rhythmic massage, lather for a shave, sharpening a razor on a strop, suction cup therapy, games played, fighting crickets. Several small subplots are developed – a would be Pavarotti with stage fright, competition between two cricket trainers, a customer’s problematic marriage to a temperamental wife. It turns out that the bathhouse itself – for its patrons, a center of community in the best sense – is threatened along with its aging neighborhood which is to be bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall.
Yang offers all of this essentially from the viewpoint of Da Ming; as we learn about this family and the bathhouse culture, so, too does Da Ming reconnect with the older values through observation and interaction with his father and brother. If the ending is somewhat predictable, it matters little here. What is focal is the way this family, and Da Ming in particular, come to understand each other, their family ties, and the quality of their life in the context of a changing world. Yang also manages to keep the emotion understated with a theme and a story that might in less skilled and artistic hands have overflowed with syrupy sentimentality. There is plenty of humor – gentle humor that arises from real people in real situations (as contrasted with more common recent film humor based largely on adolescent embarrassment with bodily functions).
The mistakes in Shower are few. The transition into a flashback story of family history is disconcertingly abrupt, though the story told is touching and relevant. And all the little subplots are worked out with almost mathematical precision – it’s too pat and adds an artificiality at the edge of the very genuine human center of the film. And that center is so beautifully realized, both in the writing and in the acting, that the minor failings don’t matter. It’s a movie that will bring warmth to your heart and a smile to your face.
China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema (2000), Jerome Silbergeld
From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China (1993), Ellen Widmer