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Healing waters

Charming Shower sprinkled with surprises

We've had movies about the spirituality of food (Like Water for Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night), the spirituality of baseball (The Natural, Field of Dreams), and now, with the Chinese film Shower, the spirituality of water. There is something sweetly elemental about the old men in Shower who while away their mornings at a Chinese bathhouse. Like little children, they return naked and carefree to the pleasures of water and the comfort of their own bodies. Shower centers on a father, Master Liu (Zhu Xu) and his retarded son, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), who run the popular, retro bathhouse in a quaint, antiquated Beijing neighborhood where these men meet.

Tiled in crumbling white porcelain with several deep hot baths at its center, the baths are a social epicenter where men fight their pet crickets, gossip, hide out from angry wives and take indigenous cures such as hot cups applied to their skin. The baths are a sliver of a dying world — the traditionalism of China being slowly eroded as decaying neighborhoods are torn down to make way for modern high-rises.

This tug-of-war between the fading past and a wrecking ball future finds expression in the clash between Master Liu and his successful, businessman son, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), who returns to his family's village after receiving a postcard that led him to believe his father is dead. Prodigal son Da Ming's single-minded pursuit of money and his anxiousness to flee his past in modern Shenzhan carries a silent condemnation of his father's slow, simple life, and Master Liu clearly chafes from this unspoken put-down.

But the baths that soothe Liu's customers also have a healing effect on this troubled father-son relationship as water becomes the medium of communication and connection between these and all the men in Shower who share the ritual of the baths. In several touching stories-within-the-story, the deeper significance of this commonplace commodity so easily taken for granted is affirmed. As Master Liu and a friend — distraught over his failing marriage — share a drink in the baths, Liu recounts the story of a desperately poor family living in arid, northern China who traded a fortune in grain, cup by cup, for the water to bathe their only daughter before her wedding day. The associations water has for Liu are dear, and the ritual of bathing is a symbol of that lost world, a tether to a Chinese tradition bound to the Earth, family and a noble past. By the film's end, director Zhang Yang has in these short vignettes made his old way so rich and meaningful, one can't help but also lament its passing.

Shower is made up of countless little pearls of wisdom and difficulties to be resolved: the threatened destruction of the baths to make way for development, the failed get-rich schemes of a local businessman, feuds between a husband and wife or between two elderly cricket rivals. In this way, the film strives, often far too anxiously, to create a tapestry of village life quirks and curmudgeonly, idiosyncratic citizens. The results can often be much too cloying and cutesy, like the tiny, manic man whose problem is domestic abuse, though in this case it's his wife who beats him up.

Much strained tenderness and pathos are also yanked from Da Ming's retarded brother Er Ming, whose own habits are almost as ritualistic as the bathhouse clientele's — the nightly jogs with his father, his morning scrub-down of the bathhouse floors and his rapturous enjoyment of a bathhouse customer's daily shower rendition of "O Solo Mio."

But just when you think you've figured out Shower, the film manages to take you by surprise by uncovering some special shard of beauty or profundity in what at first seems a routinely light comedy/drama. Though Shower's impact is slow to build and is often weighed down by situations with outcomes we can readily predict, it has the charm of films by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, whose own effervescent surfaces often hide a tender, affecting appreciation for the rarely heralded pleasures of daily life, companionship and the complicated relationships between children and parents.