Director Zhang Yang's Shower opens with a man entering a cubicle on a busy Chinese street. He undresses and steps into a shower stall that operates like a human car wash. He's sprayed, scrubbed and air-dried, and finds himself back on the street in no time.
Cut to a rundown bathhouse in a decrepit section of Beijing, where neighbourhood men spend hours washing, being massaged and socializing. The difference is striking, and very quickly we realize that Shower is a cinematic love letter to China's bathhouse tradition and male bonding.
Mentally challenged The story concerns successful businessman Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), who returns to his family-run bathhouse when he mistakenly believes his father has passed away. But his father, Master Liu (Zhu Xu), and his mentally challenged brother, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), are fine, and Da Ming is forced to spend some time with the family he's ignored.
What he finds is that his father and brother spend their lives carrying out a repetitive series of chores. They wash, massage, stack towels and clean up. Theirs is a life of service, but as Da Ming discovers, it's also a life of love. His relatives love the men they serve, and there's a Zen-like peace in their daily cycle of cleansing.
As viewers, we, too, begin to see the grace within the bathhouse's humid walls. Imagining what it would be like to be able to spend hours a day (!) relaxing and chatting, I realize I can't even remember the last time I ran out of hot water while showering. The bathhouse is no spa -- it's all worn wooden benches and cracked tile -- but its clients have the time to enjoy its watery comforts.
That's the idea -- that life's pleasures are derived from repetitive acts of leisure, and the longer the acts take, the greater the pleasure. Who can argue with that?
But Shower isn't all long shots of men lounging around. While we rarely leave the bathhouse, director Yang and his team of five writers have made sure we do get glimpses of the lives of the various customers. On these rare occasions, we're given very succinct and yet telling visions. And it's weird -- the men seem overdressed and cold in the non-bathhouse world.
Believable figure Yang's approach to filmmaking is straightforward. His camera work is basically no-frills, he avoids arty underwater shots and sticks close to the main characters, the three men.
The good-looking Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) slowly regains his childish energy and becomes even more beautiful. Veteran actor Zhu Xu, last seen in King Of Masks, makes a completely believable father figure. He pushes his tired, stooped body too hard, yet it's clear he could probably outwork a man half his age. Jiang Wu has the showiest role, as the mentally challenged brother who shuffles along with a pigeon-toed gait, hands tightly clasped in front of his body.
As well as a paean to Chinese cultural tradition, Shower is a prodigal son story, a genre that leaves me teary-eyed almost every time. Here, the son not only learns to respect his father's struggle, but also becomes an admirable brother.
Sure, it's sweet, heart-warming storytelling, but what's wrong with that? When it's done well, it's a treat that we should cherish.
SHOWER, directed by Zhang Yang, written by Yang, Liu Fen Dou, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan and Cai Xiang Jun, produced by Peter Loehr, with Zhu Xu, Pu Cun Xin and Jiang Wu. 92 minutes. A Blackwatch Releasing release. Opens Friday (August 4). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 82. Rating: NNNN