Shower (Mandarin)

“Shower” is a jovial film exploring an aspect of Chinese culture with which most Americans are utterly unfamiliar: the public bathhouse.

As presented here, the bathhouse is a major part of small-town society. It’s where men sit around and play board games, gossip, have massages, and (if there’s time) take baths. Without the bathhouse, there is no social structure.

By contrast, the film opens with an amusing scene in which a big-city man uses an automatic public shower — which looks every bit like a car wash, by the way, no doubt an intentional effect.

The simple story has Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) returning from the city to the small town in which he grew up. The reasons for this are not clearly explained, but it would seem he mistakenly believed his father to be dead, thanks to a photo his retarded brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu) mailed him.

But dad, Master Liu (Zhu Xu), is alive and quite sturdy, still running the bathhouse Da Ming worked at in his youth. Liu is bothered by his older son’s haughty attitude toward village life, and clings tightly to Er Ming as his last remaining loyal relative.

News comes soon that the city is planning to tear down the entire district, bathhouse and all, to make room for high-rises. Additionally, Master Liu takes ill and Da Ming has to help his brother mind the store.

Naturally, there is a change of heart, and Da Ming’s return to his roots helps him reassess his values. Fortunately, the film is not as trite as that. Da Ming is never made out to be a materialistic jerk; he’s just gotten away from his former way of life (he even takes SHOWERS now, instead of baths). Whatever it is pressing him to return to the big city is kept a minor force: We know he has a wife and a job, but we don’t know any details on either of them. It’s not meant to be a battle of wills between the country boy Da Ming and the city boy Da Ming. It’s just a grown man becoming reacquainted with his former old-fashioned values.

Master Liu, meanwhile, is demonstrated to be a remarkable old man indeed. His bathhouse is what keeps life together for these people, and he’s not just the guy who runs it. He’s a referee, marriage counselor, confidant and dispenser of sage advice. His lengthy story about the importance of water and bathing belies the film’s overall simplicity and is ultimately a bit out of place; however, it all comes back to the present in time for a bittersweet, good-hearted finale.

A- (; PG-13, some harsh language, a lot of discreet bathhouse nudity, mild sexual innuendo.)