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Spending some time in a Chinese bath house.

Posted: February 15, 2008 12:08 p.m.
Updated: April 17, 2008 5:02 a.m.

In early January, there were news reports of the opening of a public toilet right on Madison Avenue in New York City, between 23rd and 24th Street.

For 25 cents, you get 15 minutes alone with your thoughts, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., and there's also a sink, a mirror, and a hand dryer.

After you leave (hopefully without embarrassment, as the door pops open after those 15 minutes following a warning light and alarm that goes off three minutes before your time is up), the toilet undergoes a 90-second self-cleaning process, which, according to the New York Times, includes a spray of disinfectant over the toilet, after which heat is blown at it to dry it. Seven gallons of water containing disinfectant are propelled onto the floor, though not dried. Just be careful not to slip when you're next in line.

That's how the Chinese import "Shower" begins, in its first attempt to try to get the viewer cozy with it. Instead of a toilet, however, the opening sees a man approach a bank of showers in a public square, amidst a few tall executive-looking buildings, and puts some money in. The machine comes to life, measuring the man, weighing him and even somehow determining what type of skin he has (oily), before prompting him to choose a time-limit for his shower.

Five minutes.

The act goes on to include a conveyer belt which carries the clothes to where the man will end his shower, which isn't seen, and then he stands inside a small room, where brushes spin up and down against his body and soap is sprayed all over him. It ends with a rinse, brushes still spinning, and then his hair is blow-dried.

Because we're seeing this at length, there obviously has to be a contrast.

And there is.

We're led to an intimate Chinese neighborhood, inside the bathhouse run by Master Liu (Zhu Xu), who is giving a massage to the same man we saw getting the shower in the city. The man, who looks strikingly like Jackie Chan in the opening shots of the film, tries without success to convince Master Liu that the shower he had just experienced would make a far better business in this neighborhood than the leisurely bathhouse Liu runs. It is quite leisurely, and the film's second way of getting into you, imploring you to just relax and look around.

There's two men watching their crickets fight. There are rhythmic clapping massages that you could easily imagine in an Indian film, which would break into song soon after. Old men fall asleep in the baths, while others read the newspaper and listen to music.

Then, we have our main character, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), a successful businessman who looks like he's full of money, but devoid of feelings. He's returned home because his mentally disabled brother, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), sent him a drawn postcard depicting his father, Master Liu, lying down looking gravely ill or dead, with Er Ming in front of him. So Da thinks his father is dead and that's what brings him there. He's not happy when he learns that's not the case, especially because obviously he's got lots of business to attend to and a trip home inconveniently interrupts that business.

The niceties of "Shower" come from the little stories in between the quiet struggle of Da Ming to get used to this way of life, however temporary. There is a man always at odds with his wife, who comes to Master Liu on the first night of our stay in the bathhouse, with a shoulder problem caused by his wife. Liu puts the shoulder back into place and that story builds from there, to a solution for both of them engineered by Liu that's entirely satisfactory in this universe. If that's what improves their marriage, that's good enough.

Chances are you've seen many films like "Shower" before. There's even one in theaters right now: "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins." If you're iffy about seeing this because of it being foreign and therefore having subtitles, imagine it as "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins," but with a lesser number of actors as the family, the comedy less pronounced, and having been released years earlier, in 1999.

"Shower" also differs greatly because it somehow knows when we're ready to move on from a certain point in the story, or have a question that requires an answer.

There's a moment early on where it starts to get wearisome watching the activities of the bathhouse and then, a woman walks in to let Liu know that the entire district is to be torn down. So what will happen to Liu and his sons? Will they try to fight the edict, as might be seen in a Hollywood film? Will they see it as an inevitable sign of progress from an unseen governmental power that clearly has no regard for the past? The questions build, and we're interested again.

The first question to be answered comes at the end of a long day at the bathhouse, run by Da Ming, after Master Liu becomes ill. He bought a ticket back to the city, and what's he going to do now that he's apparently missed getting back? As if sensing the arrival of that question, Liu apologizes to Da Ming for making him waste his ticket back.

What's also interesting is that when the bathhouse is closed for a time, there's no regular customers that show up to find out what's going on and when it'll re-open. Word must get around the small neighborhood, and somehow, they find other things to do.

Of course, I'm only surmising. It's one of the effects that "Shower" has when you watch it, to invest yourself not only in the situations of the main characters, but to wonder about those on the sidelines too. Even in the dramatic moments, you wonder.


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