A SIFF WINNER last month, Zhang Yang's seriocomic tale of changing China chooses one family and locale to frame its inevitable story. In a run-down quarter of Beijing, prosperous businessman Da Ming unexpectedly returns to his father's bathhouse. Master Liu runs the place with Da Ming's half-wit younger brother, puppy-friendly Er Ming, but it's clearly fallen on hard times. The neon sign outside is broken; the roof leaks; the hot water is unreliable; and most damning of all, the median age of the entirely male clientele is 70-something. Hardly the picture of a thriving modern business. As Da Ming settles in for his unplanned stay, you can feel his silent dismay. His ringing cell phone reminds him of his wife and affluence in the industrialized south. Who needs to revisit such humble origins?
directed by Zhang Yang
with Pu Cun Xin, Zhu Xu, and Jiang Wu
opens July 14 at Seven Gables
Who, indeed. Shower translates well to the West because of its emphasis on family, humor, and pathos, but it's a hybrid film—with an American producer and a mainland Chinese director—that's really intended for domestic consumption. Like Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, its simple story and protagonists lend poignancy to the collision between old and new China. Just as US audiences get misty-eyed when frontier values and bygone days are projected on the big screen (which itself signifies those times are over), the slower, simpler rituals of Chinese society are suddenly being reappreciated precisely when they're most endangered.
Thus, the family patriarch, kindly Master Liu (Zhu Xu), can't understand why his number one son would prefer a speedy, businesslike shower to the relaxing routine of the baths. Liu is masseuse, naturopath, social director, and sage counselor in his domain; the baths are a carefree, Casbah-like refuge from the incomprehensible world outside. Director Zhang romanticizes this milieu—the cricket fights, the banter, the rhythmic slapping of massages—but he's clear-eyed about its fate.
Somber, watchful Da Ming shares this awareness of the baths' obsolescence, but is unable to tell his father as much. A stage actor known here for The Blue Kite, Pu Cun Xin brings mournful restraint to this role—which stands in contrast to the clich餠character of Er Ming (Jiang Wu), the adorable simpleton seemingly escaped from Of Mice and Men.
INSIDE THE IDYLL, Zhang constructs several subplots, most of which are pretty familiar. The old geezers kvetch and joke; Master Liu solves a few problems; lots of tea is served. While the outside world is closing in, however, Shower is also a family drama. "I've already lost you," Da Ming's father laments, trying to coax his prodigal son into taking over the business. Later (too late), Da Ming will realize that, "Being together is the most important thing."
With such commonplace sentiments, Shower isn't too far removed from a TV movie-of-the-week (or a Mandarin Rain Man). However, in its pacing and moments of quiet beauty, the film achieves a moving, elegiac tone. A tray bearing sake and nuts floating in a blue pool illustrates Zhang's eye for the graceful details of a nearly extinct culture.
Despite Shower's other, cornier touches, it's this melancholy acceptance of China's disappearing past that dignifies the movie. The story isn't cloyingly nostalgic (as one might imagine of an American remake), nor does it offer false solutions to ineluctable social pressures. Just as one community is destroyed, something else will take its place. That cycle is old enough—particularly in China—to warrant noticing, and implacable enough to prevent complaining. When we hear the repeated sad refrain of di Capua's "O Sole Mio," the lament isn't just for the individual, but for an entire way of life.