Published August 1, 2000
They don’t come much more charming than Shower, a Chinese film by Zhang Yang with a delicacy and a poignancy in its humor that is almost French. Its theme is a compelling one too, depicting in comic yet poignant form the clash between the new economy in post- Mao, post-Deng China and the old ways of local and traditional communities. Without being strident or satirical about it (presumably the powers that be in China would not allow such emphases in any case), it comes down on the side of the old ways, the community and the devotion to family exemplified in its main characters: the old man, Mr Liu (Zhu Xu), who runs a provincial bathhouse, the retarded son, Er Ming (Jiang Wu) who helps him, and Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), the older son, a cell-phone toting businessman from the city, who comes to visit them.
The dramatic set-up is thus very familiar to us. First there is the heart- tugging love between this nice old man and his happy but damaged son, who are also best pals and race each other through the city for exercise and compete to see who can hold his breath longer. But then this relationship also comes to stand for the human scale on which the family business, the dilapidated bathhouse, operates within its community. It’s Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft, the homely virtues of mom-and-pop businesses, whose customers are also mom and pop’s friends, versus soulless corporate capitalism and the inevitable economic disruptions of “progress.” Even those who are on the side of progress can permit themselves a nostalgic moment or two about the old days and no harm done.
One word of caution, however, may be in order, which is that nowhere in this paean to traditional Chinese ways is there any mention of the Communist past — or, for that matter, the Communist present — of the Chinese provinces. You would think that Mister Liu had been running his provincial bath-house as a small businessman and entrepreneur for decades, when of course we know that that can hardly have been the case. The bath-house may be traditional among Chinese men as a place to pass the time of day, drink tea, play Chinese checkers and stage cricket fights, just as we see it here, but for most of the last half century the principal threat to this way of life has been not American-style economic progress but the demands of the all-powerful state upon the labor and the social life and the very thoughts of its subject people.
Well, a Chinese filmmaker’s got to do what he’s got to do, I suppose, and given the current emphasis on the glory of getting rich, it is almost evidence of humanity in the Chinese leaders that they are willing to permit this kind of celebration of a way of life at odds both with the Communist ideology they once espoused and the “capitalist” efficiency they now hope to practice. Indeed, as the old-fashioned Marxists would have pointed out, this kind of sentimentality is almost a precondition of the necessary re-bourgeoisification of China and her re-commitment to real (as opposed to fantasy) economics. Not that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, there’s anything wrong with that!
At any rate there is much to enjoy. The people are engagingly familiar while at the same time charming in their exoticism. I especially liked the two old men who pit their gryllidine champions against one another in a little china bowl. The loser accuses the winner of having cheated by feeding his cricket, who has defeated his own mighty “Godzilla,” on ant eggs — the equivalent of steroids if you’re a cricket, apparently. Such crickets would be disqualified at the Olympics, he says. The other denies it and gives Godzilla’s conqueror a bath too, to celebrate his victory, in a bowl of water. Meanwhile, a henpecked husband (Bei Bei) has to be massaged back to health by Mr Liu after being beaten up by his wife. Mr Liu takes a genuine but not obtrusive interest in the man’s marriage ( “You and your wife, always coming to blows over the littlest things” ) and eventually divines the real problem between them, the man’s impotence, and provides a solution to it.
Having established the character of the community, the film turns back to the family saga. When Da Ming turns away for a moment and allows Er Ming to wander off, his father is furious with him. “Go back to Shenzhen,” he tells him. “Why did you come back?. . .I know you don’t respect me or what I do.” The words are wounding to Da Ming, as is the charge that all he wants to do is go home and “make big money.” His father tells him that “Er Ming and I are fine without you…I’ve already lost you. I can’t lose my other son too.” But Er Ming turns up and there is a touching reconciliation between the father and his eldest son. Then the two strands to the story are brought together when dad dies just at the point where the local authority has determined to tear down the bathhouse and build a shopping center and high-rise apartments.
It is obviously the end of an era, to coin a phrase. Even the cricket fights will now stop since, as one of the cricket-owners confidently asserts, “Crickets can’t survive in multi-storey buildings.” When one of the younger men sitting around discussing the demise of the bath house tries to defend the more up-to-date practice of taking showers at home, the older men strongly disagree with him. “Taking a bath here is a lot more luxurious,” they insist. “It’s warm and there’s so much laughter.” It’s also associated in our minds with Mr Liu’s story of the holy Tibetan lake that cleanses the soul as well as the body. Er Ming’s sense of the poignancy of his loss brings up this comparison for us. Now all he has left is his penitent and newly-loving brother — but that’s enough to give the film an up-beat ending and to make the connection between community and family.