ND/NF REVIEW: Sentimental, yet Exquisitely Detailed "Shower" Refreshes
by Stan Schwartz
(indieWIRE/3.31.2000) — After having spent some time on the festival circuit, Chinese director Zhang Yang‘s “Shower” has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. And with good reason. Yang’s second feature takes familiar themes of generational conflict and the old versus the new and situates them in surprising and even exotic circumstances.
Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) is a young, slick businessman who likes money and fancy clothes. He couldn’t be further apart in style, attitude and social class from his aging father Master Liu (Zhu Xu), who runs an old-fashioned public bathhouse with the help of Da Ming’s younger brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu). One day, Da Ming receives a postcard from Er Ming (who is, to use PC terminology, mentally challenged), which mistakenly gives him the impression that their father is dying. He rushes off to the bathhouse and is somewhat annoyed to find nothing is particularly wrong. Still, the visit neatly furnishes the occasion for Da Ming to temporarily return to his modest roots and look at his father’s traditional world as embodied by the bathhouse.
Clearly, this is a world that Da Ming wants little to do with and his estrangement from his father and brother is as palpable as the steam rising up from the bathhouse waters. Suffice it to say that as time goes by, Da Ming arrives at a better understanding of his father and traditional values.
But that is only half the story. The other half of the story — which is possibly more interesting, or at the very least, more exotic — entails an insider’s look at the world of the bathhouse. Here is a forgotten world where a bunch of locals — mostly older men — hang out, gossip, relax.
Director Zhang lovingly presents a cast of characters — and some of them really are characters — calculated (perhaps too deliberately) to charm you. Two old geezers indulge in cricket fights all the while arguing endlessly. In one of the film’s more amusing lines, one of them accuses the other of giving his cricket steroids. Another younger lad croons (badly) Italian songs under the shower, but feels compelled to instantly shut up the moment water stops running on his head.
Zhang makes it clear that Master Liu takes great personal pride in his establishment. Likewise, the old man takes quite seriously the social service he is offering his customers, making a special effort to assure everyone’s comfort and satisfaction. He even offers the place as an after-hours rendezvous for a client as a way of helping he and his wife out with their marital (i.e. sexual) problems. You’ve got to love this guy, which means, by extension, disliking the uppity, slick son.
Which leads us to the film’s main problem. The sides are drawn a little too neatly. Master Liu is a bit too saintly. Da Ming is a bit too caricatured as the symbol of the new generation that shuns all tradition. And Er Ming’s mental slowness is rendered a tad too adorably. The actors, one should hastily add, do marvels to work against the script’s over-simplifications. They’re all excellent, but of particular note is Zhu Xu as Master Liu. You may remember him from his astonishing performance in “King of Masks” and here he is no less impressive. Note that all three principals come from a stage background — and it shows.
Zhang (who is also a co-writer on the film) uses his camera in simple ways to achieve maximum effect. The film is nothing if not poetic in its evocation of another sumptuous world. Another aspect that he accomplishes is the symbolic — almost mystical — importance that water plays in the culture, a not-so-minor detail that will particularly intrigue the Western viewer. All told, the cultural details, the colors and the textures of “Shower” go a long way to compensate for the film’s more obvious, sentimental touches. It’s well worth a look.
[Stan Schwartz is a freelance journalist based in New York who has written for The New York Times, Time Out New York, RES Magazine and FILMMAKER Magazine.]