BEIJING BICYCLE (Shiqi sui de dan che)

(director/writer: Xiaoshuai Wang; screenwriters: Peggy Chiao/Hsiao-ming Hsu/Tang Danian; cinematographer: Liu Jie; editor: Liao Ching-Song; music: Wang Feng; cast: Lin Cui (Guei), Li Bin (Jian), Zhou Xun (Qin), Yuanyuan Gao (Xiao), Shuang Li (Da Huan), Yiwei Zhao (father), Yan Pang (mother), Jian Xie (manager); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Peggy Chiao/Hsu Hsiao-Ming/ Han Sangping; Sony Pictures Classics; 2001/China/France-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“The film’s hero is a bore and his innocence soon becomes a questionable kind of inexcusable dumb innocence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chinese director-writer Xiaoshuai Wang’s (“So Close to Paradise“) Beijing Bicycle, a winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, reminds one story-wise of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, whose theme was borrowed and revised in darker pronouncements against poverty. Wang struck out against the modern materialistic turn in Chinese society and how it creates impossible dilemmas for young people growing up in such a time of changing values. De Sica’s masterpiece was a neo-realist postwar view of Italy, which had a pulsation to it that made both its simple humanistic story and its allegorical story easily fit into a universal one while it wisely refrained from shoving any particular political view down one’s throat. Wang’s melodramatic film has no such subtlety to it. Wang makes Beijing into a sexy, bustling and tough city, where things are moving along in the fast-lane for those who know how to manipulate the system and make money on the backs of others. Wang runs with the hysterical excitement of the pop culture energy he injects into the story and takes the conflict involving two teenagers over the possession of a stolen bicycle and builds it up so artificially that it falls into an unbelievable and unmoving matter of a life and death struggle. Wang took too many wrong turns and too much of a poetical license in a story that was obvious from the beginning and got less satisfying with every bicycle ride taken down the same blind alley, where sentimentality permeated the air in one repetitive scene after another. These uninteresting scenes involving not one vicious beating to the film’s hero, but three equally dumb ones, seemed created mainly to give the director a chance to get on his high horse and drive home his heavy-handed sociological point about urban decline despite the appearance of growth.

The film’s hero is a bore and his innocence soon becomes a questionable kind of inexcusable dumb innocence. He’s a 17-year-old country boy newly arrived to Beijing who is named Guei (Cui Lin) and is inarticulate, socially and educationally backwards, stubborn, and he thinks he hit the lottery when he luckily got a job as a bike messenger with a delivery service, Fei Da Express Delivery Company. The part of the job Guei’s ecstatic over, is that he gets to keep the company’s “upscale mountain bike” when the company takes enough pay off his weekly wages. Guei’s also proud that he looks good in his uniform. Since he depends on his bicycle for his livelihood, the viewer waits to see how long it will take before the bike predictably gets stolen. That comes after working a month and on the day before the beautiful stainless steel bicycle will become his. In a comedy of errors Guei’s taken to the wrong Mr. Zhang in a luxury hotel and when he finally meets the right one who called for a courier, Zhang Yimou, the noted Fifth Generation filmmaker in a cameo, Guei learns when he goes outside to resume his messenger duties that his prize possession has been stolen. But there’s hope he thinks for finding his wheels in this huge city teeming with millions of bike riders, as Guei smartly had the foresight to put a mark on it. His boss (Jian Xie) fires him anyway even though he realizes it isn’t his fault, but tells him he can get his job back if he recovers the bike.

Guei’s persistence pays off as he steals back the bike from a surly 17-year-old uniformed student named Jian (Li Bin), who by chance is also poor and just arrived from the country and lives in the same neighborhood. Jian also must have a bike, but his reasons are social. He wishes to impress his attractive girlfriend Qin (Zhou Xun) and also fit in with his new swinging preppie classmates. Jian says he didn’t steal the bike but bought it in a second-hand bike shop, as he got tired waiting for his father to buy him one as promised and stole the money his father hid in the house. Though never admitting taking the money, Jian justifies to himself stealing it because his poor, remarried father saved that money to pay tuition for his younger stepsister’s schooling and in his mind he needs the money more. Without the bike, Jian’s social life would disappear. Jian’s such a spoiled brat that he doesn’t care about anyone else. But for the timid Guei, the bike means his very existence. Neither teenager could really see anything but their own selfish interests, though it’s obvious that Guei’s reason for having the bike is more important. The tragedy is supposed to be that Guei has done nothing wrong and is willing to work hard for the Man, but the one thing he feels he must have has been stolen by an equally stubborn and misguided youth and there’s no one around to help him.

It leads to Jian and his gang of schoolboy bullies repeatedly going after Guei, as Jian insists he didn’t steal it and the gang takes the bike back by force and brutally gives the unyielding Guei a few bloody beatings. It finally boils down to the two youths sharing the bike on an alternate schedule, and moving toward a tentative friendship based on their unrelenting desires. But things explode into more violence when the status-seeking Jian’s girl leaves the status-seeking Jian for another gang member (Shuang Li) who can do tricks on his bike. Jian goes bonkers when he sees his ex-girlfriend with him, and reacts in a violent manner which gets him into trouble with his former gang and somehow implicates the innocent Guei in his problem. The injustice of what is happening to Guei, is supposed to move the viewer to empathize with him and the hopeless state he’s in.

Wang hammers home the point that all’s not well or fair in China’s new capitalist society. Guei is made into a caricature of someone unprepared to live in the modern city. The police are never even considered as an option in handling his problem because he’s poor. But, in one scene when Guei’s unfairly asked by the hotel to pay for a shower he was forced to take–he’s quickly apprehended by two policemen. In a clumsy way, Wang shows that the system works for the rich. There’s also no mention of parental control over the gang of schoolboys or are any institutional safeguards shown to be in place to look into such teenager disputes on the streets, as we learn little about the youths to appreciate their problematic lives. Wang’s depiction of society seemed more symbolic than real and the story was too weakly presented for it to say much about human dignity or about the debasement of traditional values, except to make its points through the street violence. Anyway, it all awkwardly comes down in the end to that old notion that girls cause the fights between boys.

Shiqi sui de dan che (2001)