July 15, 2011

Xizao (1999)

When American producer Peter Loehr arrived to China in 1996, he discovered two things in the local industry: a great amount of talent and a lot of difficulties for film distribution. The rising generation of independent cinema was moving away from the lavish historical productions of filmmakers of the so-called "Fifth Generation" (like for example, Yimou Zhang), being more interested in urban realism. Backed by a Taiwanese media company and with the goal of discovering new talent and making independent cinema, Peter Loehr produced the first film of director Yang Zhang, the low-budget "Aiqing mala tang" ("Spicy Love Soup"). After experiencing difficult times finding ways to distribute the film, "Spicy Love Soup" finally was released and became an enormous box office success, launching the careers of several members of its cast and crew. Two years later, Yang and Loher collaborated again in another independent low-budget film, "Xizao" (known in English as "Shower"), a family drama about the clash of modern life and China's ancient tradition.

Centered on a traditional bathhouse for men in Beijing, "Xizao" is the tale of the bathhouse owner Liu (Xu Zhu) and his two sons: Da Ming (Quanxiu Pu) and Er Ming (Wu Jiang). Da Ming, Liu's elder son, is a successful businessman in the southern city of Shenzhen after abandoning his father many years ago, while Er Ming, whom is mentally challenged, helps his father run the bathhouse. One day, Da Ming unexpectedly returns home believing his father has died. However, what happened was merely a confusion caused by a drawing Er Ming had sent to his brother in a postcard. Feeling uncomfortable around his father and brother, Da Ming prepares to return to Shenzhen three days later; but when Da Ming loses Er Ming at the airport, he decides to stay in Beijing until he finds him. Fortunately, Er Ming returns home the following day, though this event opens Da Ming's eyes to the way his father feels about him. So, when old Liu catches a cold and falls sick, Da Ming decides to stay at home and help his family. And he'll discover that the old bathhouse is still alive.

Working again with the team of writers that penned his previous film "Spice Love Soup" (Shangjun Cai, Yi'nan Diao and Fendou Liu, plus Xin Huo), director Zhang Yang conceived in "Xizao" what is basically the story of a man rediscovering his past, rekindling with the life he wanted to abandon in his youth. The urban, modern businessman that Da Ming represents, detests the environment represented by his father's traditional job, and utterly abhors abhorring the idea of continuing with the business. The return to the bathhouse will take him to learn the true importance of his father's job, something he had considered obsolete. It could be said that the relationship between father and son is "Xizao"'s main theme, however, it would be better to state that "Xizao" is about the estranged relationship between Da Ming and his past as a whole. His inability to understand his brother Er Ming is another reflection of this, as is, to a lesser (though no less important) extent, his inability to relate to the problems of the bathhouse's small community.

While this sounds like a deep serious film, director Zhang Yang actually takes a light-hearted approach to his story, making it more of a comedy with Da Ming being a fish out of the water in his father's bathhouse. However, Yang's comedy is always respectful with its subject matter, and he crafts his film with great subtlety, handling marvelously the themes of family and progress. In "Xizao", Zhang Yang opts for a realist style, and uses Jian Zhang's great work of cinematography to truly capture the homely and warm environment of the traditional bathhouse to great effect. Yang's narrative is simple, restrained, as he lets his story flow without much visual flare. And yet, this simple way of telling his story suits nicely the atmosphere of the friendly micro-verse that is contained within the walls of the bathhouse. The way Yang develops each one of the subplots that take place inside the bathhouse is remarkable, as not only it truly builds up the sense of witnessing a community vibrant with life.

Nevertheless, this aura of reality would not be possible without the remarkable work of acting that the main cast delivers in the film. The naturalistic approach Yang takes for his film extents to the performances of his cast, with Wu Jiang shining in his performance as the cheerful younger brother Er Ming. Portraying Er Ming's disability with a sheer honesty and great respect, Jiang creates a well-rounded character that truly transmits the spirit of the film. Certainly, Jiang steals the film with his impressive performance. As his older brother Da Ming, Cunxin Pu is quite effective and natural, and despite having a somewhat unlikeable character, it's not difficult to feel identified with his rediscovery of family life. In his final role before retiring from film, actor Ding Li delivers a moving performance as old master Lin. His scenes with Jiang's Er Ming are filled with a highly emotional charge, yet never verging to the excessively melodramatic. The rest of the cast is pretty effective and natural, looking almost like real people being filmed.

One of the greater strengths in Zhang Yang's "Xizao" is the great balance it has in its elements. There is a perfect equilibrium between the comedy and the drama, between the old and the new. Almost echoing the very same equilibrium that the character of Da Ming so desperately needs. Interestingly, there is a balance even in the handling of its themes, as even when "Xizao" could had easily stick to a patronizing, conservative view of "old days were much better", instead it opts for a stance that conciliates the old with the new, as if saying "progress is good, but without forgetting the roots". Also of note, is the treatment of the bathhouse as a gathering place for people, for building and fostering relationships between people and purification. In "Xizao", the bathhouse is a place that purifies not only the body, but also the soul. Given its familiar storyline, the film is a tad predictable to a certain extent; but Zhang Yang manages to make the film a ride so pleasant, that it's lack of originality can be forgiven.

Through its light-hearted humor and warm charm, "Xizao" delivers a powerful and moving story that avoids the trap of cheap melodrama or dull pretentiousness. And yet, it is a piece that is as thought-provoking as it is fun. And it is also another proof that without visual flare or great production values (the film was done with an extremely low budget), an amazing movie can be made. It is not even a complex plot or an exceedingly original concept. All that is needed is the proper visual narrative for the story, and for "Xizao", the slow, subtle style that director Zhang Yang employs is all that this story requires. In all its simplicity, "Xizao" delivers its message with a profound beauty and astounding charm.


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