Barbershops in America are a dying breed, disappearing in these modern times of fancy overpriced hair salons faster than drive-in movie theaters. Not that it’s any great comfort, but Zhang Yang’s touching yet not overly sentimental film “Shower” shows us that the irreversible drive towards progress and modernization is not a strictly American phenomenon. Inside a building sporting the familiar red and blue spiraling signpost in the States, men could get their ears lowered, get splashed with a splotch of Vitalis, and luxuriate under a good steaming shave.
Master Liu’s (Zhu Xu) cavernous old public bathhouse for men is the Beijing version of these American barbershops of old and then some. Here, the neighborhood customers, mostly old retirees and pensioners, gather for daily hot baths or showers, a shave, a brisk massage or back rub, and maybe even a pedicure. Yet, though the services the old man and his mentally handicapped younger son Er Ming (Jiang Wu) offered are more extensive, the one thing — the most important thing, really — in common between an American barbershop and this Chinese bathhouse is the socialization that occurs. Conversation and ribald humor, of course. But in Liu’s place, one is just as likely to find two old men playing a board game or arguing as testily as do their respective crickets, fighting to the death in a bowl-sized arena between them. Master Liu, more than just the owner, is the resident camp counselor, offering an ear and advice like a neighborhood bartender to the regulars he views more as friends than as customers.
It’s a simple and cozy world; yet one in which Liu’s older son Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) is no longer comfortable. Virtually ostracized by his father since moving away, marrying, and starting a business career, although still worshipped by the childlike Er Ming, the Chinese yuppie feels as out of place as a female in his boyhood environment. Yet, when his father becomes ill, it forces Da Ming to take a fresh look at both the surroundings he disdains and what exactly is important in his life.
Zhang and his four co-writers have populated the dank and musty-as-an-old-grade-school-gymnasium bathhouse with a wonderful collection of uniquely cantankerous eccentrics. Each has his own miniature story arcs; all diverse, yet all somehow related to the film’s real central character, the bathhouse.
To be sure, there are no new messages in “Shower”; no secret meaning to life that we haven’t heard before. Heck, the storyline isn’t even all that original, to be perfectly honest. Still, this sweetly moving film tells the old “There’s no place like home” parable in such a gentle, yet not too syrupy manner, you don’t mind that you’ve heard the phrase before. It even confronts the specter of progress head-on, as rumors swirl that the bath house and its dilapidated surrounding neighborhood are to be bulldozed in the name of progress.
The prospect of such modernization isn’t the center of discussion at Master Liu’s establishment, but it hovers there among the other issues to be debated, analyzed, and bickered about by the regulars. It’s the kind of subject that once upon a time would have been bandied about in American barbershops of old…before they’d been done in by similar “progress.”