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Shower opens with a sleek modernist vision of automated self-cleaning: A row of gleaming silver cubicles admits harried businessmen and women, who are subsequently wetted down, buffed, and dried by a sort of static personal car wash. The effect is improbable pop futurism that seems more Japanese than Chinese, and, indeed, it is soon dismissed as a fantasy incompatible with what the Chinese consider to be the pleasures of their culture. We see the man who imagined the mechanized showers being rubbed down in the Beijing bathhouse where he has just detailed this plan to the elderly owner.
With the clarity, strength, and simplicity he displays throughout his charming second feature—the first to garner an international release—Chinese director Zhang Yang sets up the opening sequence as a shadow motif. Showers represent the threat of the future and the undoing of tradition; they loom over the playful, repetitive, steamy goings-on in the bathhouse as the title looms over the film.
There is nothing sleek or modern in the bathhouse run by Master Liu (Zhu Xu) and his retarded grown son, Er Ming (Jiang Wu). In its damp walls, men insulate themselves from the alienating properties of modern life—and the proprieties of adulthood. Two old men engage in fierce competition between their trained fighting crickets; others receive rubdowns, which the proprietors deliver in a galloping cacophony of syncopated slaps, or chat about their home troubles while receiving the hideous-looking “fire cups” treatment. One chubby youth revels in the water’s spray while singing “O Sole Mio.” Each day begins and ends the same way for Master Liu and Er Ming: They swab down the floors, slosh out the porcelain benches, drain the baths, run wild with the hoses, and take an evening jog, which is nothing but an excuse for a ritual race through town from which they collapse, giggling like fiends.
Master Liu’s other son, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), finds nothing amusing in the mess and lassitude of his family’s business. He has traveled from Shenzhen, in the south, where he is a successful businessman, because he fears his father may be dead. What he finds appalls him even as he envies the easy rhythm of bathhouse life. Pu has a Gary Cooperish handsomeness and a stoicism that helps lock down his character’s emotions. In his office clothes, with a look of pained tolerance on his face, Da Ming is both contemptuous of and ill at ease in his father’s world, and his annoyed patience with the needy, childish Er Ming hurts Master Liu, all the more because Er Ming himself cannot perceive it.
Despite his discomfort, Da Ming is still disengaged enough to leave his family to go back to his home when…a crisis strikes—he loses Er Ming in downtown Beijing, and his father’s simmering resentment rises to the surface. Forced by guilt and obligation to stay, Da Ming settles into the rhythms of the bathhouse, slowly accommodating himself to Er Ming’s role as a way of understanding that his father’s pleasures may not be his own. And for good reason: In one swooningly beautiful sequence, Master Liu tells the story of the places in the dry mountains—Tibet—where baths come at monstrous expense, and the arid beauty of the landscape in his father’s memory vaults the bathhouse into vibrant, swirling, drenched relief. But just as each member of the family learns to honor what is precious to the others, loss and modernism step in to destroy it all.
Some critics have complained about the conservative core of this film—Shower opened earlier in other cities—as if China’s arts projects should function as pro-democracy texts or commentaries on the country’s human rights record. Although the last chunks of Shower smoothly resolve each subplot in a heartwarming frenzy of tidiness, the film’s endorsement of the old ways isn’t a patch on 99 percent of Hollywood’s plush adoration of big business, its products and profits, its retrogressive parodies of women, minorities, and gays. (No one complained that the sleazy yuppie greed fantasy Back to the Future was an advertisement for capitalism.) And Shower has more than just a tender spot for Chinese culture: a love of life, sense of compassion, redefined notion of family, and genuinely moving depiction of loss. It’s also a tremendously polished piece of cinematography, especially the outdoor scenes, which crackle with sharp edges and saturated blues, their vividness a contrast to the blurred, steamy, slow-moving world inside the bathhouse. Zhang may be no Zhang Yimou—Shower is a triumph, but a lovely, small one—but, luckily for cineastes, we also have Zhang Yimou.
Visiting the grandeurs of the Alhambra in Spain, Alice points out to Martin the limitations of the guidebooks: “They explain the history and the context, but not the essential.” The same might be said of Andre Techine’s Alice and Martin, a strange, long-limbed love story of sorts that acts for all the world like a normal movie but inside is very abnormal indeed. The story line is elliptical but not confidential, curving back on itself to play out events in young Martin’s life that make no sense at all. There’s no arguing with Techine’s technique—this is what happened, the film claims firmly over and over, and each time we know less.
Like the quote—like the film itself—Martin (Alexis Loret) seems to be just what he is: the close-mouthed bastard son of a carefree hairdresser (Carmen Maura) and a bullying married businessman (Pierre Maguelon). After 10 years in his mother’s care, the guileless young Martin is shipped off to live with his father and his father’s wife (Marthe Villalonga), a much older couple who have three grown sons and treat Martin with icy disdain. Another 10 years give way, and Martin escapes to Paris after the death of his father to live with half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric), an easygoing homosexual with a taste for rough stuff, and his platonic roommate, Alice (Juliette Binoche), a violinist in a tango orchestra.
By sheer accident, Martin becomes a male model, the job an outward expression of his struggling inner forces—blankness and passion. He’s a cipher with a wild streak, stalking Alice as she goes about her day, running away from confrontation, and confessing a consuming desire for her. Even as a model, Martin has a callow, forthright look of the happy 10-year-old he used to be, but he won’t talk about himself except in terms of his relationship to others. Intrigued, Alice falls for him, and they have a blissful May-August romance that explodes when she announces she’s pregnant, right after commenting on the essential mystery of the Alhambra.
It’s difficult to make such a film compelling, but Alice and Martin does not tax the patience; there’s too much to enjoy along the way. Binoche’s chimerical beauty is completely without arrogance—she makes the self-sacrificing Alice seem strong and confident even in the painful last hour of the film, in which she battles Martin’s hardheaded family for a resolution to Martin’s horrific secret. The film is full of mundane details—the shabby stairs into the Metro, the crowded cafes, the waiting game of a photo shoot—but leaves large holes in the emotional truths of the characters to be filled in later. Alice and Martin is an impressive work,
an unhurried exploration of trust in a lonely world. CP