Friday July 7, 2000
Zhang Yang's beguiling and poignant "Shower" opens with a shot of a young man placing himself in a sleek high-tech device that functions like a carwash for humans. The next shot finds him in an old-fashioned Beijing bathhouse, whose proprietor, Master Liu (Zhu Xu), is surprised to find that this busy young man has for once found time to partake of its more leisurely comforts.
Most of Master Liu's customers are elderly men like himself, and the bath, located in an old, run-down yet charming section of the city, functions as a community center. The warm camaraderie it offers is clearly its most precious commodity. A quick collage of shots shows us just what you can get there: a massage, a back scrub, a pedicure, a shave and a cup of tea. Master Liu can even snap a dislocated shoulder back in place.
Master Liu one day receives an unexpected visit from his older son Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), an upwardly mobile businessman in distant Shenzhen. Da Ming has received a postcard from his mentally disabled younger brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu) with a drawing that suggests their father is laid out for a funeral rather than upon a massage table. While relieved to discover his father is still alive, Da Ming, a low-key type, has clearly grown distant from his parent. Da Ming plans to return home the next day, but as you might well suspect, his stay will prove to be considerably longer.
"Shower's" sentimental veneer, with its folksy comic touches and flashbacks to Master Liu's childhood, proves deceptive. As the film unfolds, we discover that this veneer throws into relief Zhang's clear-eyed view of universal themes and issues.
The gradual reconciliation of son and father, and of the older son coming to understand the importance of taking responsibility for his childlike younger brother, provides plenty of sure-fire heart-tugging. But Zhang is also concerned with the inevitably of change, and most specifically, the relentless erosion of a sense of community in modern urban life everywhere.
Even Master Liu, hale and hard-working, cannot live forever, and his neighborhood is the kind that eventually becomes targeted for urban renewal. No longer will the neighborhood's elderly men have a place to gather; no longer will the community have the use of Master Liu's array of services, dedicated to the well-being of the spirit as well as the body.
In short, "Shower" is easy to identify with in the personal and social issues it raises.
"Shower" gains immeasurably from its authentic key setting, a no-frills yet inviting bathhouse, which looks to date back to the '30s or '20s, just as it benefits strongly from its distinguished stars. Zhu Xu, last seen in Wu Tianming's "The King of Masks," is a veteran master of his craft.
Like Zhu, Pu Cun Xin is a major star on stage as well as screen, best known for "The Blue Kite." Jiang Wu, a young actor on the rise, has already starred in Zhang Yimou's epic "To Live" opposite Gong Li. In only his second feature, Zhang Yang shows that he knows how to move an audience.
Shower, 2000. PG-13, for language and nudity. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director-editor Zhang Yang. Producer Peter Loehr. Executive producer Sam Duann. Screenplay Liu Fen Dou, Zhang Yang, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan, Cai Xiang Jun. Cinematographer Zhang Jian. Editor Yang Hong Yu. Music Ye Xiao Gang. Art director Tian Meng. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Zhu Xu as Master Liu. Pu Cun Xin as Da Ming. Jiang Wu as Er Ming.