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Wednesday, July 11, 2001
The family that bathes together . . .
By KAORI SHOJI
When you're born Japanese, certain notions are drummed into you at a very early age. Among them is the deep-seated conviction that a long soak in a hot bath is pretty much the cure-all for everything from depression to flat feet.
Not so long ago, a wife would ask her husband when he got home, "Bath first?" thereby acknowledging the supreme importance of The Soak at the end of a man's day. Not drinks or music or a te^te a te^te conversation by candlelight, you understand, but a tub filled with hot water. Then, when the women stopped asking, the men simply voiced their decisions when they got home: "Hi. Bath." To which the wife would nod and wander off. The moral to be learned here is this: Though marriages may erode and couples stop speaking to each other, baths are forever. Soak, splash and wash your cares away.
Such are the thoughts after seeing "Shower." A Chinese independent film directed by Zhang Yang ("Spicy Love Soup"), "Shower" unfolds inside the confines of a public bathhouse in Beijing. Unlike the Japanese version, Chinese baths are completely gender-segregated and offer a variety of services: shaving, massages, grooming. Customers come in the morning and spend long hours just hanging around -- flitting from the big tub to the napping area to the showers, and back to the tub again. This routine is something the Japanese can identify with and appreciate. Hi. Bath.
However, in Beijing, as in almost every other part of Asia, traditional ways are being bulldozed in favor of relentless "development." "Shower" is the story of a sweet, brief period of life in a public bathhouse before its demolition.
Taming (Pu Cuxin) is a successful businessman who decides to pay his father (Zhu Xu) and mentally disabled younger brother Aming (Jiang Wu) a visit. While Taming has liberated himself from irksome family ties, Aming has stayed all these years with Dad running a men's bathhouse. Taming feels alienated and unwanted but gradually adjusts to his old environment.
Each day is more or less the same -- the familiar faces show up in the morning, crack jokes, get massaged and soak. Taming himself is a firm believer in the quickie shower, but after hanging around his brother and father, he becomes convinced of the healing powers of hot water.
Dad has never doubted this and is proud about his work as an adult, making Taming wonder if he could say the same about his own circumstances. His work, his cellphone, his wife, who is the independent type and refuses to join him at his father's home -- none of these things have brought him real happiness. Taming's dilemma is the Asian dilemma: Forging ahead in the name of change and progress comes at a price.
The bathhouse epitomizes all that Taming has lost in exchange for the modern sophistication that he had hankered for all his life. He also realizes the crucial role of the bath in the local community: Without it, old men would have nowhere to go and no one to socialize with, others would have no place to really chill out or take time off from office and family.
Most of all he sees that the bath is where his father and brother get to know each other and communicate. After they close for the day, Dad and Aming sit side by side in hot water and rub each other down with towels or hold breath-holding races, bonding in a way that's becoming increasingly rare in urban Asian families. Taming is entranced and cannot tear himself away.
Wonderfully functional as they are, Chinese bathhouses are on the endangered-species list, and more people now prefer to take quickie showers at home. The fact is, few people have time anymore to sit in big tubs and swap stories. "Shower" portrays the enormity of this loss and the fact that the picture is called "Shower" and not "Bath" only deepens the sadness.