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directed by Yang Zhang  (1999)

reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

Rating: *** ½  out of ****

This is a touching film about the relationship between an elderly father and his two grown-up sons, one of whom is intellectually challenged. It takes place in a traditional public bath house in a fading Beijing suburb, which is about to be pulled down to make way for a shopping centre.

The elder son Daming, played by Pu Quanxin, is a successful businessman in Shenzhen, but returned home because he misinterpreted a hand-drawn postcard sent to him by his brother, thinking his father had passed away. The role of the child-like disabled younger brother, Erming, is a difficult one to portray authentically, and Jiang Wu carries it off brilliantly.

The public bath provides more than just bathing services. It also provides massage, shaving, suction cup therapy, and manicure services. It is a meeting place where retirees come daily to while their time away, playing cards, chess or chatting with each other. A gentle humour pervades the film. One customer sings “O Sole Mio” in an operatic voice while taking a shower, but this irritates another customer who turns the shower off to stop him singing. Later on when he has stage fright during a public performance, he only starts singing when he is sprayed by water from a hosepipe. Two elderly men bring along their crickets, one named “Godzilla”, to fight with each other. When one of the cricket wins, the other accuses the owner of cheating either by feeding the cricket ant-eggs or giving steroids to boost its energy.

The film is effused with water. One of the customers even dreams of building an individualised public shower booth on the lines of a car-wash, and the dream of this scheme actually starts the film.

There is a flashback to a desert region of China stricken with drought. His father’s fiancee and future wife, has to obtain water in order to follow their ancient custom requiring the bride to take a bath on the night before her wedding. Unable to get water from a dried-up well, the bride’s father exchanges a bowl of grain for a bowl of water, so that she can take her pre-marital bath. This explains why the parents decided to open a bath house after their marriage, so that they can bathe to their hearts’ content.

When father realizes his elder son’s return is because of a drawing of him by the disabled brother showing him apparently dead, he says ruefully “It makes me happy that you had a chance to see your brother”.

Over the next few days, Daming gets to know his father better, and learns to understand and to respect him. He sees his father treating a customer’s dislocated shoulder, protecting another from three loan shark thugs, and even helps repair a marriage on the verge of divorce. Moreover he sees how his father loves Erming, He watches the interaction of his father with his disabled brother, like the two of them going for evening walks, racing round the block, and competing to see who can hold their breath longer under water. When it is time for Daming to return south, he buys his father a back massager and foot swayer.

He then goes to town to buy his return air ticket, and decides to bring Erming along. But when left alone momentarily, the brother wanders off and cannot be found. Returning home without Erming, father loses his temper, and says “I know you don’t respect what I do”, and adds, “You don’t care about him at all”. Fortunately, the next morning, Erming returns home munching an apple, and father and brother are overjoyed.

Daming gradually learns to love his younger brother. There is a very moving scene when Erming, who has not completely grasped the significance of father’s death, continues to clean the baths as if nothing has happened. Only after Daming manages to explain that father has died and will not return does Erming wails onto his shoulder. Later, Daming sends his brother to a mental asylum, but when he sees the brother being chased and held by the orderlies, he decides to take him out of institutional care, and to look after him.

The portrayal of disabled people is a difficult one to balance correctly. One needs to be sympathetic and accurate yet without sentimentality. In this regard, director Zhang Yang succeeds admirably. A 1992 graduate from the prestigious Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, Shower is his second feature film, directed at the relatively young age of 33 years. This film won him many awards, including the International Critics Award at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, the Golden Space Needle Award at the 2000 Seattle International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the 2000 Rotterdam Film Festival, and the Audience Award at the 2000 Far East Film Festival.

The characters in this film are well depicted, and you are totally immersed into their world. The acting is restrained but sincere. In a rapidly changing China, we learn what can be lost when one leaves home to seek one’s fortune, namely, family ties, friendship and community spirit. Shower is a heart-warming film of rare beauty, tenderness, and wisdom.