Xizao (Shower)

Directed by Zhang Yang
Starring: Pu Cun Xin, Jiang Wu, Shu Xu.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and nudity.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
August 7, 2000

After a long, hard summer where not even the art houses could provide exceptional filmed entertainment, a charming new picture from China makes its way to America. No, it doesn't star Jackie Chan or Jet Li -- they're over here, now. Shower doesn't feature guns, explosions, car chases, or any stylistic fighting in slow- or fast-motion. Something novel to summer films is introduced: characters!

This film takes place almost entirely within a bathhouse in Northern China. Unlike its American counterparts, straight men patronize the establishment to get away from their wives. It is run by the aging Mr. Liu (Shu Xu) and his slow-witted son Er Ming (Jiang Wu). His older son, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), has come home from the South, where he is a successful businessman. Da Ming rarely visits, and this time he notices how much closer his father and brother are than he is with either of them.

After a few days, he realizes that he doesn't really fit in with his family and the old neighborhood anymore, so he announces that he's goin to back to his wife and his new home. Er Ming wants to go into town with him to buy the train ticket, but while Da Ming is busy at the counter, Er Ming runs off. At first, when Da Ming returns to the bathhouse without Er Ming, it seems that he has further alienated himself from his father. When Er Ming comes back on his own, the shared experience makes them closer. Da Ming stays longer, letting his ticket expire, only to learn that his home district is going to be demolished by the government.

This is where we get into the heart of the film. It starts as a broad comedy, with the different characters coming in and out of the bathhouse. When Er Ming runs off, it becomes suddenly perilous. With that episode over, Shower becomes reflective, and interest in the three main characters builds. The district also gains importance. When Da Ming and his father go on the roof to fix the leaks during a rainstorm, we see the district from above. It looks like any generic-Communist village in China, built shortly after the Revolution. All the buildings are falling apart, but as Mr. Liu speaks of it, we learn along with Da Ming its true value.

As China becomes more modernized, it also becomes Westernized. This film shows the conflict between old and new, best articulated in a scene where Da Ming buys his father some mechanical massagers. Mr. Liu has been massaging people by hand all his life, and he uses the machines only to humor his son. He also knows that where his bathhouse sits, a parking lot or some high-rise apartment will be in its place. One of his customers observes that crickets can't survive above the first floor of a building. Of course, people who live in high-rise buildings wouldn't even think of collecting crickets in the old fashion.

Shower is a kind of gentle comedy that is rarely seen in China. Its director, Zhang Yang, is the pioneering independent filmmaker in his country; his first film, Spicy Love Soup, was the first commercially successful independent film in China. With Shower making it into major film festivals and American theatres, it shouldn't be long until we see a surge of Chinese indies coming our way. If they promise to be as good as this film, I'll be in eager anticipation.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Xizao (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Shower (1999) - English subtitles -- VHS
Shower (1999) -- DVD

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan