Many people in the American film industry see China as the pot of gold at the end of the global economy. There is a long way to go, though, and Chinese authorities are fending off a full scale Hollywood invasion. They have been letting only ten Western films a year into their market (the number will soon be set at fifteen). The big question is what kind of films the people of China will pay to see. Like filmgoers everywhere, they went in droves to the $200 million extravaganza Titanic. But an equal number paid their hard-earned yuans to see Spicy Love Soup, which was made for a pittance ($350,000) by Imar, the first independent film company in the Peoples Republic of China.
Although Spicy Love Soup carried the "made in China" label, the man behind Imar’s success is an indefatigable young American producer, Peter Loehr. I have no idea why "Luo Yi," as Loehr is called in transliterative Chinese, made his way to Beijing; or why he ever dreamed he could overcome the practical, cultural, and political obstacles. But he reputedly speaks near-perfect Beijing Mandarin, and he managed to cut through all the red tape while carefully touching all the right bases with the Xi’an studio powerbrokers of the Chinese film industry. He eventually set up and retained control of his own film company.
The 32-year-old entrepreneur is a man with a plan: to make apolitical, contemporary, urban-centered films aimed at young, male Chinese audiences, and to use new young directors who are given a skeleton budget and who develop screenplays in brainstorming collaboration with a group of five young writers. The plan does not sound very original–in fact, it relies on the focus-group mentality that has become the standard formula for producing commercial entertainment in America. If focus groups are to commercial filmmakers what burgers are to cuisine, then Loehr’s ambition was to become the Burger King of Beijing film. Imar will soon release the first Chinese "Road" film, and its stable of five young writers has already done a series for Chinese television.
Loehr’s plan for marketing his films is equally American in style. Imar established a symbiotic relationship with Taiwan’s "Rock," the largest Mandarin music company in the world. He hired Beijing’s underground music video maker, Zhang Yang, to direct Spicy Love Soup, which tells five different cross-generational love stories set in contemporary urban China. More importantly, they put together a soundtrack, and sold the Spicy Love Soup soundtrack compact disc in advance of the film’s opening.
This soundtrack-first strategy made money in China, even though CD piracy is endemic there, and it created an audience for the film. Loehr made a total commitment: he personally traveled from province to province flogging the film to local distributors. The music soundtrack of Imar’s second film became a best-selling CD, its popularity far outpacing the film. Although Imar’s backers have not become overnight millionaires, Loehr has his foot in the door of the global economy’s coveted Chinese market.
Shower, Imar’s third film, also began as groupthink and was directed by Zhang Yang. But it has taken a quite different direction. It has a nondescript soundtrack with no commercial value and seems aimed at Western art film audiences. Loehr marketed it like independent filmmakers everywhere. Instead of opening in China he sent Showeroff to all of the small film festivals hoping to interest a distributor. Film critic juries at several festivals awarded it prizes and audiences everywhere were so enthusiastic that Sony picked it up for worldwide distribution.
Shower stars Zhu Xu, whose performance as the "King of Masks" I celebrated in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of this magazine. In King of Masks he played the last practitioner of a traditional art form searching for a child he could love as his own flesh and blood, and train to carry on the tradition. He succeeds only after he is able to break the hold of an ancient Chinese prejudice and adopt as his successor not the son he wanted but the daughter who earns his love.King of Masks is the kind of film that restores one’s faith in human nature–your own and that of others.
I was lured to the theater by the promise of Zhu Xu’s acting, not the reputation of Loehr’s groupthink recipe, but both contribute to what one sees on the screen. Although Zhang told interviewers that he wrote most of Shower, the five-man stable is listed in the credits, and the first half of the screenplay bears a family resemblance to a situation comedy put together by a group of American television writers. As in the long-running comedy Cheers, there are several regular customers who gather in a communal setting where everyone knows their name; here it is the communal bath rather than the tavern. But unlike the typical American situation comedy, Shower presents a real and insoluble problem: What do you do with your mentally retarded brother when your father dies? Addressing this question with sophistication and intelligence, Zhang lifts his film out of banal sentimentality. All artists search for the universal in the particular. Zhang found it in the fate of Er Ming, a mentally retarded man whose world ends when his father dies.
We all rely on a subconscious radar system that tracks small differences in body language and appearance. We know, without knowing exactly why we know it, that there is something wrong about the way the person smiles or doesn’t smile, the rhythm of his speech or gait, how he stands, the way he occupies his space. This radar system detects the "difference" in people with so-called developmental disabilities. How we respond to those signals is another matter: some feel revulsion, others feel sympathy–it is the rare human being who feels empathy. Those are the living saints among us whose hearts go out to the different other. Shower’s achievement is that it allows the audience to understand, for a brief moment,what it feels like to be a saint. By the end of this film all but the hardest-hearted members of the audience will empathize with Er Ming. Although much of the credit must go to Zhang’s direction and the screenplay, the three actors Zhu Xu, Pu Cun Xin, and Wu Jiang give the kind of performances that remind us that acting is indeed one of the highest artistic callings.
In this film Zhu Xu, who plays the father, has created a different persona than the King of Masks. He discards the artistic bearing and aloof demeanor of the master conjuror as he transforms himself into the humble everyman, the keeper of the communal bath for men in the rundown outskirts of modern day Beijing. The great actor is barely recognizable. Now he is the layer-on of hands, the father who is also the mother. Zhu Xu’s character–he is called Master Liu by his patrons–is still struggling over traditions. This time the challenge is not his own chauvinism; instead, the whole way of life and world he has created and shares with Er Ming is being destroyed by the juggernaut of modernity, represented by Master Liu’s other son, Da Ming.
Master Liu’s death precipitates the crisis for Da Ming, who has left his humble family behind, moved to a different city, showers instead of bathing, and is on the fast track to success in modern, "cell phone" China. His father, keeper of the old-fashioned communal bath, is an all-purpose caretaker, chiropractor, masseuse, barber, traditional healer, and creator of community. Master Liu doctors the souls of his customers as well as their bodies–he is the spiritual embodiment of tradition in all its homely virtues.
Master Liu’s dedication to water (he and his retarded son actually live in the back of the bathhouse) is given an explicitly sacred connection. In a flashback to an arid mountain landscape, the indigenous people are gathered to pray that there will be water in the communal well. There is none and still we see that ceremonial tradition must be honored. One of the village families trades its precious rice door to door for water so that their daughter can have her ritual bath before her marriage to, as it turns out, Master Liu. This flashback allows Zhang to add scenic vistas to the urban palette of his cinematography. Set against the bathhouse, the flashback creates a visual parable of the scarcity and superfluity of China, with its vast arid wastelands and overflowing rivers. Master Liu is the mediating link between these two Chinas, and we are given reason to understand that he is doing more than eking out a living.
Although the film is set in the baths, there is no frontal nudity–the camera skitters over the male bodies without revealing them. The beautiful young bride is shown naked from behind as she enters her tub of precious water. That brief moment has been exploited by Sony to sell the film to Occidental audiences. The bride’s nudity is not gratuitous in context, but cinematically the entire context of the flashback seems to have been borrowed from the quite different "period" genre of Zhang Yimou’s Story of Qiu Ju and Raise the Red Lantern. The image of a Chinese bride, dressed in traditional red, being carried on a sedan chair across a barren sunlit vista is typical Zhang Yimou and strikingly different than the rest of Shower. The change is so abrupt it seems as though the projectionist has put in the wrong reel. The opening scene as the credits roll is also from another genre–music videos–and it is the only moment that reveals Zhang Yang’s background. A man approaches a kind of car wash for people. In this futuristic device to the beat of synthesized music and with the camera skittering coyly over his nudity he is showered and buffed in the isolation of his rented stall. The film then cuts to the communal baths, where that same man, a get-rich-quick schemer, describes to Master Liu this imaginary "shower" of the future replacing the practice of wasting all day in the baths. Master Liu quite rightly scoffs as he massages his hare-brained client, but the real future, in the form of modern urban renewal, looms ahead for his bathhouse and his retarded son.
The conventional wisdom about the mentally retarded is that they adapt better in rural communities where life is made up of simple rhythms and unvarying routines. Master Liu’s bathhouse serves as that simpler community in the film and his mentally retarded son, Er Ming, is happily and helpfully at home working beside his father. The clients all know Er Ming and accept him. The bond formed between father and son is the ultimate example of successful caretaking. It is all the more impressive because Master Liu obviously takes a genuine pleasure in their playful relationship. Racing around the neighborhood every evening in matching blue running suits they are both unmistakably enjoying themselves. Both love the routines of the bath which structure their lives and give rhythm to the film. Unfortunately the bathhouse and the whole neighborhood are about to be bulldozed in the name of progress.
That progress will destroy Er Ming’s world. Loehr and Zhang, who were aware of the sensibilities involved, had been considering a mentally retarded actor to play the part–but Wu Jiang came begging for the role and prevailed. He gained 40 pounds, and whether by his own improvisations or Zhang’s directions he is superbly convincing in producing all the signals your radar will detect, without the exaggerations that would make your skin crawl.
The handicap of mental retardation, even the term itself, is a sensitive subject in America. I wince every time I write the words. The Sony production notes for Shower cautiously describe Er Ming as mentally challenged. Whatever label he is given, in this film Er Ming is depicted as a handicapped man of limited intelligence. His life is structured by routines, his emotional life is child-like–and yet he has a special kind of altruistic wisdom that redeems his limitations. When Er Ming’s friend, who is also mentally challenged, sings loudly in the shower but is struck dumb with stage fright at an outdoor community festival, the audience becomes restive and intolerant. Not Er Ming, who gets a hose to spray on his friend. The audience is at first appalled but the friend is galvanized into song, to the delight of all concerned.
Er Ming sends a postcard to his brother Da Ming, played by Pu Cun Xin, China’s most popular stage actor. In this modern-day China of collapsing tradition, Da Ming’s family does not attend his wedding, and he is so ashamed of his brother he has not even told his wife about Er Ming’s mental retardation. But Da Ming cannot ignore Er Ming’s postcard, a crude drawing that suggests their father is dead. The postcard is in fact prophetic. Master Liu dies unexpectedly during Da Ming’s visit, which creates the crisis of conscience: Am I my brother’s keeper?
Although Shower gives you a sense of the slow waterlogged rhythms of the bath, the film is fast-paced and filled with interesting incidents. Da Ming is repelled by Er Ming, and that disdain for his life with his father cuts like an icy chill through the warm and playful relationship that has been sustained in Da Ming’s absence. Master Liu is not happy to see this successful, but to his mind prodigal, son, who has abandoned his family, and the father expresses these feelings. In America, Da Ming would have been "out of there" by the next return flight. But guilt, shame, and filial obligation have not yet been so attenuated in this Chinese son. Da Ming swallows his disdain, sets aside his cell phone, and even helps out in the routine duties of the bath, surprising his father and delighting Er Ming. But this is a momentary gesture of Xiao (the special Chinese word for filial love) not a commitment to the world of the communal bath. When Master Liu dies, Da Ming will have to decide whether Xiao obligates him to sacrifice his own fast track to success for his retarded half-brother and the routines that structure his life.
The American progressive slogan is "normalization": help the mentally retarded person to live as normal a life as possible. It has been one of the great success stories of twentieth century Rawlsian humanism. Normalization has saved hundreds of thousands of handicapped children from the real and symbolic stigmatization of total institutions and enormous public resources have been allocated to improve their quality of life. But the truth is, many will never be self-sufficient, and normalization is both expensive and time consuming. These realities are brought to bear most painfully when the caretaking parent dies and the mentally retarded adult is not capable of living independently.
Thirty-five years ago, in the admitting offices of so-called "training schools" across America, the same scenario shown in Shower would be played out. The sibling of the mentally retarded adult would look to the "total" institution in the aftermath of the caretaking parents’ death to unburden himself of the unwanted responsibility. Everyone with actual experience in these transactions realized what would happen: separated from his familiar setting and routines, and from the caretaker who knew and met his needs, the mentally retarded person would almost always regress. Frightened and bewildered, some would become combative and end up in restraints. Struggling and incontinent, they would be reduced to the level of animals. Decades of parental caretaking to build basic skills could be destroyed in days. There were, of course, better and worse institutions–but the public denied this reality until normalization broke through it. Still, many American families face the same crisis when the caretaking parent dies and the available alternative will be the smaller, sheltered settings–some good, some bad–that have replaced the mega-institutions of the past.
China, like much of the world, does not have the resources that have paid for normalization in America. There it is devoted parents like Master Liu who provide all the care and when they die the only option for the Er Mings are China’s total institutions. In the film, Da Ming actually takes his brother to just such a place, where the predictable regression takes place. Baffled by the unfamiliar surroundings, Er Ming bolts and soon is like a wild animal struggling with people in white coats. He is moments from chemical or physical restraints when Da Ming reappears to rescue him.
What happens in the rest of this film lifts it out of the category of Hollywood endings and commercial entertainment’s lowest-common-denominator formula. Da Ming calls his wife on the cell phone to tell her his father is dead and belatedly explains that his brother is mentally retarded and that he is thinking of bringing him home. His modern Chinese wife hangs up on him. The scenes that follow show Zhang Yang’s power and sophistication as a psychologist and an artist. Dialogue disappears and the narrative moves by visual images that create a mood and tell the story at several levels. After the call to his wife, Da Ming finds his brother in the darkened and suddenly foreboding bathhouse, deathly still, head twisted to one side and looking up like a man who has hung himself. Then there is the familiar image of Master Liu’s hands beating out the rhythms of a Chinese massage and as the frame enlarges we see that it is Da Ming, the prodigal son on the fast track, who is becoming his lost father, taking on his work and his relationship with Er Ming. He even dons the matching blue tracksuit to run around the neighborhood with his brother.
Every incident in the film has created a strand, and all the strands are wordlessly tied together in the end. Er Ming, desperate for the routines that structure his world, becomes the symbol of the Old China that cannot give up its traditional ways. When it is clear that the bathhouse is coming down, we see Er Ming seemingly trying to drown himself in one of the communal tubs. As Da Ming patiently tries to reassure him, Er Ming reminds his brother of a story their father used to tell. It is about an elderly woman–a grandmother and her young granddaughter trekking across the Tibetan highlands to bathe in a sacred lake. Once again Zhang takes a cinematographic page out of Zhang Yimou’s book. This time we see that these brightly lit pages are homages that delineate Zhang’s conception of the different world of storytelling. The granddaughter worries in this final flashback that it is too cold to bathe but her grandmother insists that the ritual must be done once every twelve years and without self-pity tells the child that she expects to be dead before her next opportunity. This then is Er Ming’s last sacred chance. Da Ming’s return to the fold cannot save the traditions nor the bathhouse from urban renewal, and we do not know whether his Xiao is enough to make him a living saint, someone who goes beyond empathy and sacrifices his own way of life to save his brother’s. In the end, we are left to weep and wonder what can be salvaged from this clash of tradition and modernity in contemporary China. Shower makes one think about China’s future not as a contest between a young man and a tank in Tiananmen Square but as an erosion by the global economy of the family-based traditions that have sustained Chinese civilization.