Shower (1999)

by Natalie Porter


Old and New

I have never considered the relevance of a theatre’s architecture to a film’s plot until I experienced Shower, Chinese director Zhang Yang’s second feature. I went to see Shower at Vancouver’s Tinseltown Theatre Complex, which is on the third floor of a new shopping centre, still partially under construction. The tacky shopping mall is decorated with neon lights and painted with various pastel colors, making it quite hideous. This, of course, is not unusual for a mall, but the shopping centre is located in the heart of the city’s historic Chinatown, making it quite distinct in contrast to the ornate, time-honored designs of the buildings that surround it.

Chinatown is a small, dense area, filled with markets, Buddhist temples, gardens, and cultural centres. Several of the shops cater to tourists looking for trinkets and gadgets, while others offer a huge selection of dried goods and fresh vegetables used for traditional medicines and dishes. The contrast between Chinatown and the new theatre complex struck me, because Shower directs its viewers’ attention to the conflict between technological progress in a “modern world” and the simplicity of venerable customs, like the Chinese bathhouse.

cover art


Director: Zhang Yang
Cast: Pu Cun Xia, Zhu Xu, Jiang Wu

(Sony Pictures Classics)

Shower opens with techno music pumping and a bizarre scene set in the super-modern city, Shenzhen: Da Ming (Pu Cun Xia) stands in front of a stall and inserts some coins, whereupon his height and weight are calculated by a computer. He enters the stall and removes his business suit: soon we see that he’s in a shower, where he rotates as he is rubbed down with whirling brushes, soaped up, sprayed by jets, and blown dry by fans. The whole contraption seems ridiculous but a likely coming innovation in a world intent on becoming more efficient, and in effect, more reliant on machines. The human shower is a replica of the car wash (which we see later in the film, to emphasize the comparison), suggesting that workers see themselves as “vehicles,” ever on the move in a competitive city where time is money.

Da Ming is a successful businessman in Shenzhen, and rarely returns home to rural Northern China, still home to his father, Master Liu (Zhu Xu). Da Ming receives a mysterious postcard from his younger, mentally-challenged brother, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), which he interprets to mean that his father is dead. Da Ming returns to his father’s bathhouse, which is frequented by men of all ages who enjoy hot baths, massages, fire cup treatments, pedicures, and social interactions each day. Master Liu is actually quite alive and his bathhouse is full of activity, demonstrated in several humourous scenes. For instance, two elderly men bring their crickets to fight and the loser ends up accusing the other of giving steroids to the champion cricket, or a chubby teen belts out “O Sole Mio” while showering, to the delight of Er Ming and dismay of every other patron.

Er Ming may be simple, but he is able to recognize the needs of others, and so symbolizes innocence and decency. Er Ming gives his aging father much pleasure as they joyously perform their daily rituals, such as preparing the bathhouse for customers, or racing each other through the streets during their evening jog. Er Ming also enjoys listening to his father reflect on the past. In several flashbacks, Master Liu recalls his childhood in the dry Tibetan desert. Here we see how he has come to cherish water, for water was so scarce that people sometimes couldn’t bathe for months. The flashbacks reveal the value of water in his ancient culture: for Master Liu, it “not only washes your body, but cleanses your soul.” Er Ming loves these stories, and shares his father’s passion or water. But if father and younger son are totally compatible, Da Ming never seems at ease in this environment where the pace of life is so slow.

To motivate Da Ming’s change of heart, the film illustrates his modern lifestyle to the point of redundancy. For example, Da Ming buys his father a massage machine and repeatedly uses his cell phone, almost as if he’s trying hard to hang onto his faster-paced life. And at first he is reluctant to take on duties in the bathhouse, but events prevent him from retuning to Shenzhen as he planned. Then he learns that the bathhouse and nearby homes are going to be bulldozed and replaced by a shopping mall and high-rise apartments. To my relief, the bathhouse clients do not rally to save their establishment in a cheesy, Hollywood-style scenario, but rather, reminisce and then decide to move on and adapt to their situation. Da Ming comes to a new appreciation for his father, and eventually, for the values of the bathhouse community. A crisis with his brother demonstrates Da Ming’s crucial turnabout. When he tries to place Er Ming in a home, even though one of the bathhouse patrons offers to care for him, Da Ming suffers for it: watching Er Ming tackled to the ground by three attendants. Recalling the shower at the film’s beginning, this scene shows that institutionalization can only be degrading and impersonal.

And yet, Shower is not didactic, insisting that the old ways are right and progress is wrong. Instead, it looks for a balance. Zhang Yang subtly shows the importance of human interaction in nearly poetic moments, as when a tray with a pot of tea floats between Master Liu and a client in a bath, or when the opera singer presents Er Ming with a walkman playing “O Sole Mio,” so that he can always listen to his favorite tune and remember the times that they shared. Shower encourages viewers to take time out of their own busy lives to reflect on the communal customs of the past and maintain genuine connections with others.

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