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Shower / Xizao (1999)  

Shower / Xizao (1999)
Country: China
Director: Zhang Yang

Zhu Xu - Master Liu
Pu Cun Xin - Da Ming
Jiang Wu - Er Ming
He Zheng - He Bing
Zhang Jin Hao - Bei Bei
Lao Lin - Li Ding
Lao Wu - Feng Shun

The film begins with a busy professional visiting a shower facility for a quick bath. He is cleaned with machine efficiency, which calculates the amount of water he needs to minimise waste - much like a car, and indeed, a conversation in the movie later takes place in one. Contrast this cutting-edge human car-wash technology to the misty laid-back environment of the old Chinese bathhouses, with its host of characters and charm, under threat from demolition to make way for a spanky new block of flats or shopping mall.

Master Liu is the owner and operator of one such bathhouse, falling to bits but kept scrupulously clean every morning with the help of his retarded second son, Er Ming, a cheerful and enthusiastic character whom his father and the customers treat with loving affection. Da Ming, the first son, arrives from the south, after receiving a cryptic postcard from his younger brother that he interprets to mean that his father had died. He is relieved to find that this is not the case, but decides to stay on for a while. He views the bathhouse as a charming but ultimately anachronistic relic of the past, and is anxious to return home to successful affluent life down south, guiltily reminded of his infrequent trips to visit his family and not introducing his wife to his father.

The film's characters live in a world full of affection and human foibles, where the bathhouse is more than a place to get clean but also a social area for old friends to meet, bicker and gossip. It is filled with endearing characters, like two old friends bickering over a cricket-fighting competition, a harried married man taking refuge from his wife in the male-only environment, and a shy young man who can only sing under a shower. The stories Master Liu tells of more ancient rituals in lyrical flashbacks comes to associate bathing as a symbol - not only of bodily cleansing, but also of spiritual cleansing. There is much to recommend this film, from its acute observances of human behaviour, to the performances by its actors. This isn't a film with obscure messages or complexity. It is a simple gentle story that notes the loss of tradition and humanity in China's modern society. But a dignity is lent to the film by its resigned acceptance of the inevitability of fate. It leaves an ache in heart, as the film, like Da Ming and the patrons of the bathhouse, quietly mourns the passing of the old and irreplaceable.

Eden Law

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