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'Shower' is a wet and wonderful peek inside a Chinese bathhouse

Friday, August 11, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Just what the contemporary Chinese businessman-in-a-hurry needs -- a brushless car wash for human beings: You step into a stall, drop in a coin, strip and just stand there as the machine soaps you up and scrubs you down with no effort on your part.


RATING: PG-13 for one mild sexual subtheme

STARRING: Zhu Xu, Pu Cun Xin, Jiang Wu

DIRECTOR: Zhang Yang


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 1/2 stars


It's a fantasy on the part of Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin). It's anathema -- a traitorous shower -- to his father Liu (Zhu Xu), owner of a bathhouse in Beijing, where Da Ming is headed for visit on the erroneous impression that Pa is close to death.

In fact, Liu is anything but dying. He and Da Ming's retarded brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu) are doing fine, happily operating their old-fashioned communal bathhouse, which serves as a kind of a male social center -- a neighborhood bar without the booze, a leisurely nonalcoholic Chinese "Cheers."

There, with the aid of hydro-therapeutic conversation and rough-and-ready rubdowns, old Liu's authority as a problem solver is unquestioned. He and his son can referee a cricket fight, fix a dislocated shoulder, relieve a singer of stage fright or repair a troubled marriage with equal ease. The towel-clad old customers, stripped of clothes and pretensions, are their family.

It's a beautiful father-son relationship between Liu and the simpleminded Er Ming -- racing each other and playing with their bathhouse hoses -- into which the older, sophisticated brother Da Ming intrudes. When Er Ming gets lost during an errand, Da Ming gets blamed: "If you can't take care of him, don't take him out!" yells the father. But Er Ming, to everyone's surprise, finds his way home anyway.

When Liu does indeed fall ill, Da Ming pitches in out of guilt and necessity to run the baths, which are scheduled to be demolished to make way for a shopping mall. Through doing so, he will finally learn to shed his social superiority and rediscover the magic of a hallowed institution.

Among the loveliest sequences in "Shower" is a strange, beautiful flashback -- entered into through an old postcard -- in which Er Ming's mother's family must trade grain for water in order to effect the girl's traditional pre-wedding bath. So important is water and the water ritual that, in a dry land, one is willing to sacrifice food for it.

As father Liu, actor Zhu Xu -- a member of the Beijing People's Theater Troupe and title star of last year's brilliant "King of Masks" -- turns in yet another gorgeous performance. Pu Cun Xin and Jiang Wu in the roles of his sons are no less honestly moving in every scene.

This is the second feature film of director-writer Zhang Yang, a pioneer in the Chinese underground music-video scene, whose "Spicy Love Soup" was the first Chinese independent film to achieve domestic box office success (with a soundtrack that sold 500,000 units!). "Shower," which won the Critics' Award at the Toronto Film Festival, is akin to the superb Danish film "Mifune," which similarly dealt with a city-slicker brother returning home to a retarded brother and ancestral ways.

Safe to say, there's something universal in that theme. And in the idea that current Chinese culture, like all others, abandons tradition for modernity only at its own ethical peril. As highly idealized as it is, "Shower" has nothing and everything to do with us Yankees, too.

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