Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shower - Zhang Yang

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. As China is experiencing, modernization has human and social costs. Shower is a drama/comedy that shows how the relentless pace of progress impacts people’s day to day lives.

Da Ming is a successful businessman who lives in Shenzhen. After receiving a letter from Er Ming, his mentally challenged brother, Da Ming goes back to Beijing after a long absence.  Old Liu (Da Ming’s and Er Ming’s father) is the owner of a bathhouse in a popular neighborhood. Most of the attendants to the bathhouse are elders who have known Old Liu for years and have developed close ties with him. The bathhouse and the neighborhood are about to be demolished by the government (probably to build the Beijing 2008 facilities?). As the threat of demolition materializes, the characters also see how their traditional lives fade away. Two friends who organize crickets’ fights see all their insects dying.  

The film is as critical of the Chinese government as a Chinese film can be: the characters are sad for the destruction of their lives, but they see the process as inevitable.

Since Oliver Twist was published, we know that economic progress is a painful process where some fail and other succeed. Once a country enters into a modernization path, people like to tell how the old world is falling apart: I guess that the negative reactions to modernity are normal: after all, the past is a really comfortable place, while the future is full of uncertainty.

Eventually, countries “graduate” and attain some degree of modernity. China’s case is particularly interesting to watch because it has a tremendous potential to destabilize the World if the discontents of modernization engage into violent activities. The Maoist legacy is dormant but may not have disappeared. As of today, China is growing at an annualized average rate or 10% per year. This is enough to keep people relatively satisfied despite of the losses of some sectors of society, and to buy out groups of interest that can agitate the masses. The people who show the human side of the economic losers, are still a minority and their audience is composed mostly by intellectuals.

But crises happen, and nothing guarantees that China will grow dramatically until it reaches the standard of living of a poor OECD country (Mexico, Turkey, Chile, etc). In fact, given the inherent instability of the capitalist World economy, the most likely scenario is that China will suffer a big crisis in the next years 20 - 50 years, undermining the standards of living of the people who have benefited from economic growth so far. When that happens, the audience of movies like Shower will grow, the buy-out process of the Maoist dinosaurs will be harder, and eventually discontent will arise.

Something similar happened in Mexico in the 1990s and is taking place now in Brazil: accelerated economic growth allows reformist governments to buy out pressure groups nostalgic of the revolutionary past. But when bad times come (and they always do), governments lose legitimacy and leverage to placate pressure groups.

It is not easy to say how the Chinese government will react to an uprising by the discontents of modernization. On the one hand, it is clear that the Chinese political system is not democratic. On the other hand, there is evidence that the Chinese government tends to overreact when there is popular discontent (see the case of the Japanese fishermen), precisely because the democratic communication channels between the population and its leaders are non-existent.

That is a question for the future. In the meantime, the trailer of Shower is here:

And you can watch the entire film (highly recommended) here

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