Joan Chen, who has had a modest career as an actress in American films and TV, makes her directorial debut here in this brutal, poignant and beautiful Mandarin language film. Starring Lu Lu as Xiu Xiu, a teenaged girl from the city sent to the country during Mao's cultural revolution, and Lopsang as Lao Jin, a castrated Tibetan nomad who is to teach her horse husbandry, Tian yu is not so much an indictment of communist China as it is an indictment of human nature. Xiu Xiu is brutalized by small-minded bureaucratic males as has happened throughout human history, be they communist or feudal, her innocence and youth traded for an apple, her buoyant hope for life dashed by blind political and economic forces, and her self-respect stolen from her by the twisted logic of rape and lust.
What elevates this story above what we have seen many times before is the striking beauty of the Tibetan countryside and the fine characterizations of both Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin. Lao Jin is a "gelding," made fun of by others, a man of quiet disposition who falls in love with his beautiful young charge, but stands aside because of his impotence. Xiu Xiu has an imperial nature natural to favored girls everywhere, be they Japanese "princesses" or American "valley girls," a nature very well depicted by the script and very well acted out by Lu Lu, whose delicate beauty and spicy temperament clash well with Lao Jin's Taoist stoicism. At one point he remarks wisely that "every place is the same," meaning of course that it is what we bring to the place that really matters. But his wisdom is completely lost on the teenaged girl who wants and needs society and all that it has to offer. And so, the underlying "love affair" between the two can never be...except...as it is in the end.
Lopsang's performance is entirely convincing and Lu Lu is fascinating to watch. Joan Chen did a fine job with both of them while managing to keep politics and political agendas in the background. She concentrated on the human tragedy and made it universal. Both of her central characters had flaws that in some way led to the great sadness that they experienced, and yet they were not to blame. In this naturalistic expression we are reminded of the tragedies of novelists Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser; and of course Chen was influenced by the work of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, in particular his sad, but captivating Raise the Red Lantern (1991) in which a beautiful girl is consumed and brutalized by societal forces of a different nature.
This film misses being a masterpiece because of a hurried resolution leading to an ending that needed a bit more shaping. Nonetheless this is an arresting and compelling drama, beautifully filmed and sensitively directed. But be forewarned. "Celestial Bath" is a disturbing film not easily shaken from the mind.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!"