Yang is describing the elaborate automatic shower set-piece that opens his new feature, Shower. Designed as a sort of human car wash, the automatic shower allows the user to simply stand on a turntable and be sprayed with soap, buffed by rolling sponges, rinsed off, and finally vacuumed dry. "So, it worked, but there was no hot water. And a little secret: That scene is my cameo. It was quite cold."
Shower examines the dying days of a grand old bathhouse in Beijing. Naturally, the bathhouse is symbolic of all that will be laid to waste by the scythe of progress: community, filial piety, humility, and so on. Run by the sympathetic Master Liu (Zhu Xu) and his retarded son, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), the bathhouse is as old-fashioned as it is vital--a stout, wise institution where no problem is unwelcome; where comradeship is tenderly encouraged, and one's right to indulge is never questioned. Set in a grand, wheezy old building in an overlooked corner of the ageless city, the bathhouse serves as the social hub of an elderly fraternity, and contrary to what the lady's bottom in Shower's advertisement promises, the film is populated almost exclusively by melancholic old men who predictably complain about youth and argue among themselves. When Master Liu's yuppie son Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) grudgingly returns to Beijing to help run the bathhouse, we are set on the inevitable collision course between old and new, youth and age, tradition and progress.
Though not a particularly insightful or even original film, Shower is nonetheless satisfying. Its pleasures come almost entirely from its construction: Wonderfully cast, well scripted, and lovingly filmed ("We had to look hard to find that bathhouse; there really are only a few left," says Yang), Shower is comfort food for the cinema--bland, but soothing. The mechanics of the story are tried and true (sons forgiving fathers, the retarded brother showing the way to happiness), and certainly flirt with the maudlin, yet the touch is light and restrained, and the flirtation never evolves beyond that. Moreover, the attention to detail, particularly in the depiction of Master Liu's transcendent relationship with his retarded son, is rich and rewarding. There is one sequence in particular that achieves a gentle grace, in which Master Liu runs round the block with Er Ming, the two of them bouncing slowly down the street in their garish sweatsuits. Rounding the corner, they slip through a park, and cross a little plaza filled with elderly people exercising in the thin light of early evening. The camera lingers on the sight of this wayward urban gathering, content, for a moment, to just watch and appreciate before catching up to the patient father and his energetic son.
In the end, Shower washes over you with the ease of passionate presentation, gingerly sidestepping the weaknesses of its conception. Designed as an "urban story for people living in the city, with an emphasis on real lives--stuff that the audience can relate to," Shower fulfills its role dutifully, allowing the intelligence of its craft to stand firm. I am not surprised when the film's producer tells me that Shower broke box-office records in China.
Which brings me to the one abiding curiosity of the film. In the credits, one name stands out sorely: that of the film's producer, Peter Loehr. "Shower is our third production," Loehr explains, speaking of his smashingly successful Imar Film Co., the first legal independent film company in China. "I was interested in founding a company that would work with new talent and address, sort of, the real issues of new Chinese society," he tells me in New York-tinted American English. He elaborates casually on the lengthy process of securing native Shanghai investors, arguing with studios for distribution deals, and generally shaking up the entrenched Chinese film industry, seemingly oblivious to the shock I register at the realization that he has accomplished these feats almost single-handedly by the age of 34--entirely in Mandarin Chinese. "It's been difficult, but the public really seems to respond well," he smiles.