The practice of motion-picture production in China is clearly in flux. Though films have long emanated from government studios, political changes in the past decade or so have led to coproductions with other countries -- Farewell My Concubine (with Hong Kong, then a British territory), Dr. Bethune (with Canada and France) and (with the evil American empire, no less) Ang Lee's upcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. More recently, we have even seen the release of independent films, like the pseudonymous Wu Ming's low-budget 1996 Frozen and now the far slicker Shower, from Imar Studios.
In Shower, director/cowriter Zhang Yang examines the changes in Chinese society through the fortunes of a bathhouse in a decaying neighborhood near Beijing. Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), the elder son of bathhouse owner Master Liu (Zhu Xu, who played the title character in King of Masks), has long since moved to Shenzhen, where he lives a modern urban lifestyle with a home, a wife and a high-paying job. But when he receives a postcard from his retarded brother, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), with a drawing that seems to suggest that his father has died, he returns to the old 'hood.
Dad is actually just fine, thank you, but it becomes clear that he has never completely forgiven Da Ming for abandoning their little family. Da Ming plans to stay only a day or two, but one incident after another draws out his visit. During that time, he begins to realize what he has given up for his new life, and we begin to realize the ways in which this communal meeting place serves as the town's social anchor, with Master Liu a cross between village elder and priest. (The bathhouse is for men only; though we get a few insights into the culture's gender attitudes, it's never made clear whether there's an equivalent facility for females and what role its proprietor fills.)
Zhang deftly and quickly draws a half-dozen supporting characters, and his pacing never flags. If there is a misstep (and it is not clear there is), it is in the presentation of a flashback/fantasy scene two-thirds of the way through. As Master Liu begins to tell a story to one of his clients, we abruptly find ourselves in a rural period setting with new characters and a totally different visual style. Even with the storytelling setup, the change is so sudden and so complete that it feels as if the projectionist has accidentally inserted a reel from some other movie. In fact, the flashback establishes some emotionally important material for the end, but one has to wish that Zhang had somehow been more graceful in its introduction.
It would be slightly incorrect to consider the film an allegory, because its themes are so upfront and integrated with the plot. Zhang is looking back fondly on some of the culture's old ways while clearly acknowledging the necessity of their passing. That the only character who seems unable to deal with the inevitable changes is the retarded brother could be regarded as a political slap at those who let their nostalgia for the past get in the way of progress. The film is at once both a mourning and an apologia for the new China.
In Mandarin with English subtitles.