The friction between tradition and progress provides the backdrop to Zhang's lyrical character piece about Da Ming ("The Blue Kite's" Pu Cun Xin), an estranged son who returns to his Beijing home after mistakenly interpreting a postcard from his retarded brother Er Ming ("To Live's" Jiang Wu) as an announcement that their father, Master Liu ("King of Masks"' Zhu Xu), has died. When he arrives, Da Ming finds things little different from when he left years earlier to chase a more cosmopolitan lifestyle in the progressive Shenzhen region. His father and brother are both well, and the men's bathhouse that has been his father's daily preoccupation for more than three decades remains as busy and popular as ever. It is, in fact, much more than simply a bathhouse. It is a communal center where men gather to enjoy the benefits of socialization--to play games, trade stories and enjoy Master Liu's massages and medicinal treatments.
As a series of unforeseen circumstances conspire to keep Da Ming from leaving, he finds himself again drawn into the life from which he so desperately once wanted to escape--a ritualistic existence defined by obedience to tradition and loyalty to family. Master Liu, on the other hand, sees his life as a calling, an opportunity to serve the community and provide Er Ming the love and protection he cannot secure for himself.
Simultaneously provocative and poetic, "Shower" is almost perfect dramatic storytelling, as purely humanistic a film as audiences are likely to ever see, staged with utmost consideration for a cast of remarkable actors. Jiang Wu, so memorable as the shy, crippled son-in-law in "To Live," handles the most difficult role here, transforming an otherwise intolerable sentimental cliché into a heartfelt, three-dimensional character whose quiet willingness to overlook the conflicts around him lays the groundwork for a prodigal son's eventual reconciliation with his past.
Behind it all, one can sense the guiding hand of an uncommonly confident filmmaker, arguably the most successful of China's new wave of "independents." Indeed, Zhang Yang's effort here is all the more astonishing because it is only his second film, coming little more than a year after his very successful debut feature "Spicy Love Soup." As both a screenwriter (in collaboration with three other writers) and a director, he exhibits a sophisticated command of story and technique, weaving the film's difficult assortment of stories and characters into a thematically cohesive whole.
Like his Fifth Generation predecessors Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, Zhang Yang builds the film on a variety of deliberate visual and narrative motifs. Where Zhang departs from tradition is in his willingness to relinquish the reins of fate, giving his characters a level of control over their own destinies seldom seen in the films of the preceding generation. Given the film's contemplative message about China's modernization dilemmas, it's fairly clear that this is as much a concern for Zhang Yang's generation as were the wounds of the Cultural Revolution for Chen Kaige's and Zhang Yimou's. That the one has chosen to build upon--rather than shun--the artistic and political lessons learned by the other, is their great gift to the world. Starring Pu Cun Xin, Zhu Xu and Jiang Wu. Directed by Zhang Yang. Written by Liu Fen Dou, Zhang Yang, Huo Xin, Diao Yi Nan and Cai Xiang Jun. Produced by Peter Loehr. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. Mandarin Chinese-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 94 min