THREE STARS – Though-provoking
The sacramental nature of water has caught the attention of people around the world. From the baptisms of the West to the bath houses of the East, and the ritual baths of most areas between, the power of this life-giving fluid has nourished body and soul for millennia.
But as is true of all sacramental acts, the shifting changes of culture often promise a better life at the expense of these religious practices. When the sacrifice is made, the barren nature of the bargain empties the soul as well as the culture.
This truth is charmingly portrayed in the Chinese culture by the talented director Zhang Yang. Using a traditional bath house in Beijing as the location of the tale, Yang explores change and its impact on our souls by exposing the lives of a father and his two sons.
Not appreciating the depth of life his father has lived, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) embraces the changes in modern China and goes “south” to make his fortune. Rejecting the communal nature of his father’s bath house and its leisurely pace, Da Ming has chosen the more isolating but efficient practice of taking a “shower.” Though this would carry little significance in some cultures, for his father, Master Liu (Zhu Xu), this choice is experienced as disrespect both for him and his life.
In an amusing scene, the extreme form of what such a modern shower might look like is shown. Placed on a street corner in the downtown section of the city, a person pays to enter a small cubicle in which his disrobed body is washed much as an automobile in a carwash, brushes whirling and cycles of soap and rinses applied.
Comparing this utilitarian experience of water, with no human interaction or care from the community of men who share the water together in Master Liu’s bathhouse it is no wonder that Da Ming is a lonely and unhappy man when he comes to visit his father.
Having been sent a card by his retarded brother, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), which prophetically implied that his father was ill, Da Ming comes home to the exuberant warmth of his brother and guarded vulnerability of his father.
Experiencing the warmth and love between his father and brother, Da Ming has a stirring within his soul. The journey he travels back into his deeper self is wonderfully woven into his family history as we observe the importance of water for his mother and grandmother.
In one tender scene, Master Liu tells of his grandmother walking for months to a special lake in Tibet to bathe in its sacred waters, a pilgrimage she explains that every person must make at least once in their lifetime.
In another moving scene, Master Liu tells of his bride’s wedding-eve, in which her poor father in draught-ridden Mongolia had traveled from home to home trading their last remaining grain for the water needed for her to bathe in preparation for her wedding.
The universal message inherent in this award-winning film is one that modern culture should heed. The shift from baths to showers in Chinese culture has its equivalent everywhere. It can be seen in any culture where the sacraments of communal life are left behind in the name of progress.