A refreshing lightness of touch and delicacy of delivery save what might easily have become a mawkish, sentimental family tale in Chinese writer-director’s Zhang Yang’s sophomore feature. “Shower” is essentially the story of a clash of generations and values, an intimate prodigal-son fable which sets the simpler, cozier traditions of the Old China against the bustling, technocratic aspirations of the New. Such a piece could quickly degenerate into heavy-handed didacticism, but here a restrained approach, both by the filmmakers and their cast, keeps it from succumbing to the temptation.

The picture’s theme is immediately presented by a straightforward juxtaposition. There is first a vignette of a Chinese yuppie taking a shower in an impersonal public facility that looks rather like a telephone booth and acts sort of like a car wash for humans; the film then segues to Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), a successful businessman in modernized Shenzhen, who, in the mistaken belief that his father has died, returns reluctantly to his family home in an old section of Beijing. But he finds that not only is his father, Master Liu (Zhu Xu) still alive, but he continues to the neighborhood bathhouse, an establishment which serves as a community center, an oasis of quiet and relaxation increasingly foreign to modern tastes. Da Ming also resumes contact with his younger brother Er Ming (Jiang Wu), a sweet-natured, retarded young man of whom Da Ming is clearly ashamed (we later learn that he’s never revealed his brother’s condition to his wife) and whose bond with the father runs incredibly deep.

From this point the movie’s dramatic arc is rather predictable. We’re introduced to a bevy of colorful patrons–a would-be opera singer who can croon only under the shower, two old men who bicker with one another while racing their pet crickets, a henpecked husband, a young fellow with big dreams who gets into debt with loan sharks–and shown how Master Liu, a sort of unofficial neighborhood mayor, helps them all out. (He has the wisdom of an Andy Taylor, you see.) We watch Da Ming gradually coming to understand anew his ties and responsibilities to his family. And we commiserate with them all as a building project threatens the destruction of the neighborhood and “the end of an era” of traditional Chinese life.

In some general respects “Shower” resembles the 1997 “Hamam” (released in this country as “Steam: The Turkish Bath”), in which a driven young Italian was transformed by going to Istanbul to sell a bathhouse owned by his late aunt, eventually restoring the place and changing his life. But while that picture tried too hard to be exotic and left the motivations of its characters rather opaque, Zhang Yang’s film mostly adopts a fairly naturalistic approach which keeps it from becoming sticky or overbearing. (The one exception involves recollections by Master Liu of his late wife’s parched Tibetan homeland, which attempt, almost mythically, to express the life-giving qualities of water, and come across as rather feebly poetic.) The performances, too, are commendably restrained. Zhu Xu brings quiet dignity to Master Liu, and Pu Cun Xin opens up gradually as the returned son. Even more impressive is Jiang Wu as the mentally handicapped Er Ming. It’s the sort of “Rain Man” role which can easily be done in a showy, ostentatious way, but Jiang manages to capture the character’s pathos without overdoing things. The secondary figures aren’t so carefully shaded, of course, but neither do they become mere caricatures.

The message of “Shower” is fairly obvious, but overall the film presents it with a gentleness and charm that prove quite endearing.