(Xizou, Zhang Yang, China, 1999)


There are occasionally indications that audiences for Asian cinema in Australia are getting larger. This is a definite sign that intelligent life survives in our local film culture, and can even flourish in pinched and mercenary times.

Zhang Yang's Shower is an effortless crowd pleaser. It bears less relation to the work of Chinese contemporaries like Zhang Yimou or Zhang Yuan than to populist tales such as Spotswood (aka The Efficiency Expert, 1992) or Brassed Off (1996). Like those movies, Shower portrays an old-fashioned, communal way of life that is facing extinction in an increasingly modernised and alienated society.

Master Liu (Zhu Xu) runs a charming, slightly decrepit bathhouse in Beijing. The clientele are a bunch of eccentric old men who evade their everyday problems and seek precious relaxation. Some play games with crickets; another blares "O Sole Mio" under the shower. These guys are involved in an amiable, all-male sort of regression, and they create a childlike atmosphere into which Liu's mentally challenged son, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), fits perfectly.

Few stories of this sort are complete without the return of a prodigal son – in this case, Er Ming's successful brother, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin). Arriving at the bathhouse because of a misunderstanding, Da Ming dutifully bides time with his family and their strange friends, but cannot hide his eagerness to return to a truly modern world. A series of dramatic incidents brings him to a point of crisis and re-evaluation.

This an enjoyable, undemanding, fairly predictable film, occasionally pepped up by fantasy inserts – such as the hilarious prologue conjuring ultra-modern shower techniques for the stressed businessman. Yang deftly sketches the physical and emotional geography of the bathhouse in which much of the action unfolds, offering a wide range of moods and tonalities. Passing gestures towards the world of women excluded from this masculine preserve are amusing and telling.

Like many films of this ilk, Shower both mourns and faces squarely the fact of progress in modern times. Although the lifestyle represented by the bathhouse may be fading away, there is still enough community spirit left in this pocket of Beijing to allow a rousing, public concert – and one more charmingly tone-deaf rendition of "O Sole Mio".

© Adrian Martin August 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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