One of the most notable features of the 1999 film Shower (directed by Zhang Yang), is that this movie does make it possible for viewers to savor the authentic taste of what used to be the realities of a Chinese living, during the nineties. The reason for this is that, throughout the mentioned historical period, the process of China’s industrialization, attained an exponential momentum.
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In its turn, this caused the Chinese society to become especially sensitive to what accounts for the dichotomy between ‘tradition’, on one hand, and ‘modernity’, on the other (Young and Deng 1441) – the idea that is being explored throughout the film’s entirety.
In my paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of this suggestion at length, while outlining the specifics of how some of the film’s major characters relate to the motif of ‘tradition’ vs. ‘modernity’, and expounding on what can be considered this motif’s discursive significance.
The idea that the film Shower is indeed about exposing the inconsistency between the ‘traditional ways’ of China, on one hand, and the process of this country becoming progressively affiliated with the ways of modernity, on the other, can be inferred from watching the film’s two initial scenes.
In the first of them, we get to see a young Chinese man stepping into something that can be well described as an ‘automated shower booth’, where he is being thoroughly washed and ‘dried’, within a matter of five minutes. Throughout the procedure, this man’s facial expression remains utterly unemotional, as if he was not much of a human, but rather a car at the auto-wash facility (Shower 00.01.33).
It is understood, of course, that the above-mentioned scene was meant to stress out what Zhang Yang believed to be the most distinctive aspect of ‘modernity’ – the fact that it causes people to grow increasingly alienated from what accounts for their sense of self-identity – hence, making them nothing short of ‘robots’, incapable of appreciating life to its fullest.
The consequential scene, in which we get to observe the functioning of the family-operated bathhouse (ran by Old Liu) in Beijing, could not be more discursively incompatible with the earlier mentioned one. The reason for this is quite apparent – as this scene implies, people used to come to visit Liu’s bathhouse not only to cleanse their bodies but also to be able to socialize with one another (Shower 00.05.19).
Allegorically speaking, Liu’s bathhouse appears to have been helping its regular attendees to ‘purify’ their souls. This simply could not be otherwise – the very ‘activity’ of spending long hours in the hot bathtub, while chatting with mind-likes, naturally enables one to lessen the acuteness of its life-impending unconscious anxieties.
What is especially peculiar about how the film depicts Liu’s bathhouse, is that there appears to be the strongly defined atmosphere of an interpersonal intimacy between visitors – these people give each other massages and feel at ease while discussing a variety of different family-issues, as if they were close relatives.
Given the fact that Liu’s clientele consisted of predominantly elderly individuals and the fact that his life-story implies that, before coming to live in Beijing, he was a rural-dweller, we are able to gain an in-depth insight into what can be considered the actual cause of people’s traditional-mindedness, as it can be seen in Shower. Apparently, the notion of ‘tradition’ is closely related to the notion of a ‘rural living’ (Zhang 465).
The reason for this is apparent – those people who reside in the rural areas are utterly dependent on agriculture, as the mean of ensuring their physical survival. In its turn, this naturally presupposes them to cooperate with each other, especially when it comes to facing the weather-induced hardships (such as the lack of water).
This explains why, as it can be seen in the film, Liu’s bathhouse may be well discussed in terms of a little community of its own – even after having been relocated to the large city, the bathhouse’s visitors never ceased being endowed with the strongly defined ‘rural mentality’.
The above-mentioned explains the essence of the intergenerational conflict between the character of Old Liu and his eldest son Da Ming – having been brought up in Beijing, Da Ming could not help thinking of his father’s ways as being ‘outdated’.
There is a memorable scene in the movie, where Old Liu explains Da Ming the actual reason why, while staying with his father and his mentally challenged brother Er Ming, he never ceased experiencing the sensation of an emotional discomfort: “Old Liu: I’m aware that you (Da Ming) despise my job. You despise me, as well. I could not care less – I have been rubbing people’s backs all my life and I enjoy doing it” (Shower 00.28.52).
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Apparently, Da Ming unconsciously believed that he was much too ‘modern’, to have anything to do with Old Liu and Er Ming, which in turn was causing him to experience the sensation of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, Da Ming did love his father and his younger brother. On the other, however, Da Ming could not quite relate to the idea that he shared the same blood with them.
Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate, on our part, to confirm that Shower can indeed be discussed, as such that is being concerned with exploring the intergenerational conflict between parents and their children, which in turn is ‘fuelled’ by the ongoing confrontation between the notions of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’.
Another notable peculiarity, in this respect, is the fact that the film’s director made a deliberate point in exposing ‘modernity’ (represented by Da Ming), as such falls behind ‘tradition’ (represented by Old Liu) in a variety of different ways. Specifically, Zhang Yang wanted to promote the idea that one’s traditional mindedness naturally endows the concerned individual with an acute sense of wisdom.
The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the fact that, as it appears from the movie, Old Liu never ceased being perfectly aware of what motivated Da Ming to pay a visit to his father, in the first place: “You came to confirm to yourself that I am dead” (Shower 00.28.39).
Somehow, Old Liu knew the actual purpose of his son’s visit, even though Da Ming himself was not quite sure, as to what drew him to his father, in the first place. This, of course, promotes the idea that ‘tradition’ is superior to ‘modernity’.
The same can be said about the contextual significance of a post-card, sent to Da Ming by Er Ming, which prompted the eldest brother to come to see his closest relatives in Beijing. Even though this post-card featured Er Ming’s drawing of ‘sleeping’ rather than ‘dead’ Old Liu, it nevertheless proved ominously foreshadowing – just as Da Ming initially expected, his trip to Beijing did in fact end up being ultimately concerned with Old Liu’s funeral.
The message, conveyed by this, is quite apparent – contrary to what many rationally minded (modern) people believe, one’s mystical premonitions do often prove highly prophetic.
In its turn, this subtly implies that there is indeed a good reason to believe that, as compared to what it happened to be the case with the representatives of the younger generations, older people are much more likely to adopt a proper stance, when it comes to facing life challenges. The reason for this is that they are closely affiliated with the notion of ‘tradition’.
We can well speculate that the director himself must have been raised in rural China – this would explain the sheer sympathy, with which the discussed film treats the character of Old Liu.
I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, as to what can be considered the actual significance of the motif of ‘tradition’ vs. ‘modernity’ in Zhang Yang’s film, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, after having been exposed to the film in question, viewers will naturally conclude that the discursive gap between both of the mentioned notions is rather irreconcilable.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to refer to Shower, as a film that is being solely concerned with glorifying ‘tradition’. Rather, this movie promotes the idea that there are cyclical subtleties to just about any person’s existence, reflected by the fact that, as time goes on, ‘modernity’ is being slowly transformed into ‘tradition’. This, of course, adds rather considerably to the spirit of humanism, radiated by Zhang Yang’s film.
Shower. Dir. Zhang Yang. Perfs. Zhu Xu, Pu Cunxin, Jiang Wu. Imar. 1999. Film.
Young, Denise and Honghai Deng. “Urbanization, Agriculture and Industrialization in China, 1952-91.” Urban Studies 35.9 (1998):1439-1455, Print.
Zhang, Li. “Contesting Spatial Modernity in Late-Socialist China.” Current Anthropology 47.3 (2006): 461-476, Print.