The older more ambitious brother, Daming, has left the village for a career in the big city, while his father and younger brother, Erming, run a community bathhouse in their village providing massages, fire-cupping, and chiropractic therapy while dispensing wise personal advice to his customers.
What I loved about this movie, besides its warm depiction of conventional village life in China and its collection of funny characters, is the relationship between two brothers. They represent two opposing sides of China; one brother represents the modern, young, ambitious, wealth accumulating business men of China, and the other represents the traditional values of craftsmanship and genuine caring and bonding with friends and the community.
Missing his older brother, the younger mentally handicapped Erming sends a post card to him with a drawing that looks as if his father is dying. The older brother returns immediately to find that his father is fine and not dying at all, but while he is there he discovers that what is dying is the ancient customary way of life of his childhood. He remains in the village to help his family with the bathhouse and rediscovers the values and simple pleasures of traditional village living, which is scheduled for government demolition to make way for condos or a shopping mall.
This film is an ode to vanishing traditions and village values that have existed and sustained life for generations. It’s also a vivid and heart wrenching look at how China’s human rights and heritage are being completely trampled upon and wiped away without any thought for the older generation’s needs or desires. It’s as if the people of China exist to serve the needs of the government rather than the government serving the needs of the people.
The cast of odd characters that frequent the bathhouse on a regular basis have, over the years, created close bonds and the spa is a sort of meeting place and sanctuary where the customers all have their regular relaxation routine and talk about all manner of life issues while drinking tea, playing board games and having cricket-fighting competitions. The traditional bathhouse in China is the equivalent of the local pub or watering hole in Western society where people come to gather with friends and talk about daily events. A sort of Cheers bar where everybody knows your name but in China it’s much more than that.
Millions of people who live in ancestral villages that have kept the community together for thousands of years are being replaced by a new modern fully automated life style in big cities. In the film a whole way of life is brutally and unceremoniously demolished as the community helplessly watches while their lives are wiped off the earth as if it never existed. It’s the end of an era for a whole generation of people.
China is currently undergoing massive changes at the expense of the environment and its centuries old revered heritage that have made China what it is today. Whole districts are being demolished by government policies of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, transplanting millions of people from their ancestral homes and locations.
For more films about China’s traditional culture and arts see also the following: The King of Masks (1999) by Wu Tian-Ming, Not One Less (2000) by Zhang Yimou, Together (2003) by Chen Kaige, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2006) by Zhang Yimou and documentaries like Manufactured Landscapes (2007) by Jennifer Baichwal, Up the Yangtze (2008) by Yung Chang, Last Train Home (2009) by Lixin Fan and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) by Alison Klayman.