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At the Movies

Three to see - a break from sensationalism


In this summer of multiplex discontent, my counsel can be easily summarized: Relax with a Chinese “Shower,” rely on proven American veterans as “Space Cowboys” and be sufficiently open to Iranian poetry and philosophy to believe that “The Wind Will Carry Us.”

Shower is an unpretentious low-key movie that details the daily round at a bathhouse in a rundown section of Beijing. Director Zhang Yang takes his time building the story, starting with the dutiful but reluctant visit of Da Ming (Pu Cum Xin), a successful young businessman from the south, to see his ailing father, Master Liu (Zhu Xu), who runs the bathhouse. Da Ming is vaguely ashamed of his father’s career and has never told his wife that his younger brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu) is mentally retarded.

Watching Er Ming’s delight in helping his father carry out the bathhouse routine, however, we begin to recognize what a central place this bathhouse holds in community life. The movie has opened with a farce sequence during the credits in which someone goes into a coin-operated shower that closely resembles a carwash. In contrast, everything is slowed down at Master Liu’s: Older men spend half their days there, meeting friends, playing chess, drinking tea and being massaged. For the sporting crowd, there are even intense competitions between fighting crickets.

Da Ming can’t help but be impressed by the close relationship between his father and brother, and the way Master Liu plays marriage counselor to a young couple whose relationship is poisoned by the husband’s comic fears. The simple way in which Liu brings them together in a deserted pool after hours is a model of humane humor, a wonderful contrast to summer sensationalism.

Audiences can probably see where “Shower” is heading, but the division between father and son is effectively suggested by understated performances. Zhang Yang’s tone is sweetly comic, avoiding excessive sentimentality. At the end, urban renewal means the bathhouse will have to look for a new home, and the movie suggests a wider framework for its emphasis on water by interweaving scenes of earlier generations of the family in its struggle against drought. But mostly “Shower” is about people taking care of each other.

Outer space is not my natural habitat, but any movie with Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner is in professional hands. Space Cowboys celebrates the stubborn courage of pilots who, 40 years after they lost their chance to be the first Americans in space, team up again to rescue a Russian communications satellite. Unlike most action pictures, it cares about establishing its main characters, gives them credible, humorously cranky lines and has awe-inspiring photography.

Team Daedalus (as the four pilots are known) crashed a plane in 1958, but now the officer who grounded them, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell, a villain worth remembering when supporting actors are rewarded at Oscar time), needs Frank Corvin (Eastwood, who also directed). A Russian satellite outfitted with an operating system like one Frank had designed is in trouble, and NASA’s new operatives don’t know what to do with such obsolete technology. Frank wants revenge on Gerson and makes a deal that he’ll help only if he and his former comrades can finally go into space together.

This leads Frank to seek out Tank (James Garner), now an unconventional Baptist preacher; Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), shown giving a naive thrill seeker a scary ride in an old crop duster; and Jerry (Donald Sutherland), who has become a designer of roller coasters. There are gags that help to individualize the elderly space pilots, including frequent rueful discoveries that some old pal has passed away, and even an endearing low-key romance between Hawk, a widower, and a likable NASA engineer (Marcia Gay Harden).

It takes 90 minutes before Team Daedalus finally blasts off into the cosmos and Houston is told the problem with the Russian satellite is far worse than was thought. Although I found the conclusion a lot less compelling than the rest of the movie, “Space Cowboys” is one of the most entertaining escapist movies of the summer.

Action-oriented American moviegoers may initially believe Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us is about nothing. “We’re headed nowhere,” someone calls out as a car hurtles forward across a harshly beautiful landscape somewhere in Iran. The driver and two unseen assistants are not quite sure how to get to the Kurdish village of Siah Darah and never reveal what they expect to do there. They tell the village boy who has been assigned as their guide that they are looking for treasure, but show a special interest in a very old woman, a relative of the boy, who is apparently near death.

The inhabitants of Siah Darah call the protagonist (Behzad Dourani) “engineer,” and there is considerable dry humor in his encounters with the villagers, who are revealed as both hospitable and impenetrable. One keeps waiting for a plot to develop, but the boy keeps running off to prepare for exams, the old lady seems neither better nor worse, a woman tea seller has a baby and the engineer has to rush to higher ground so he can receive pointless calls from Tehran on his cell phone.

Although the villagers are friendly, we never see inside their homes, which are set in a maze of alleys and courtyards that are terraced into the hillside. There is one semi-exception, as the engineer, who makes a recurring project of trying to buy some milk, is told by a wary older woman to go down into her cellar. There the daughter, whose face is never seen, milks a cow while the engineer recites some beautiful verses, which include the movie’s title. When the engineer tries to pay for the milk, the daughter calls up from the cellar that he must not pay, and the engineer thanks the mother for their hospitality.

It is hard to explain why such scenes seem mysteriously moving or why encounters with the villagers are more authentic than most documentaries. The engineer is the only professional actor in the movie.

“The Wind Will Carry Us” ends with an encounter with a wise old doctor, who tells the engineer that the old woman is simply dying of old age, and encourages him to pay closer attention to the glory of creation. The doctor sees death as what happens when “you close your eyes on the beauty of the world.” But director Kiarostami isn’t preaching. He has simply found a way to help us live for two hours in a mysterious village where we are forced to reflect on what is genuinely important.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000