Beijing Bicycle (Shini sui de dan che) (China, 2001) **
Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai. Written by Mr. Xiaoshuai and three others. Photography, Liu Jie. Editing, Liao Ching-Song. Art direction, Tsai Chao-Yi, Cao Anjun. Sets, Wang Wenjun. Music, Wang Feng. Cast: Cast: Cui Lin, Li Bin, Zhou Xun, et al. A Sony release. In subtitled Mandarin. 113 minutes. PG-13. At the Art.
What can happen to a bicycle? A lot. It can bring joy to people of all ages. It can be ridden in international, European-dominated competitions (e.g. Le Tour de France) and create American champions. It can cause romances or accidents; be a status symbol among the poor --and a bread-winner too. Long ago, movie-house owners would skimp by renting just one print and having boys on wheels "bicycle" reels from one theater to another.
A bicycle can be stolen -- as in the classic Italian neorealistic movie, Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) -- a major staple in introductory, bare-bones, bread-and-butter courses. That gem hovers over "Beijing Bicycle," but certainly not as a copy-cat derivative. It won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival.
Guei (Cui Lin), a country boy in his late teens, comes to a city (Beijing) for the first time. Along with other young newcomers or locals, he gets a job as bicycle messenger. It's a pretty nice deal. The boys are provided with fine, new mountain bikes. For a month they receive 20 percent of the company's profits. Then the money is split 50-50, and the boys can become the owners of the bicycles.
Technically, Guei acclimatizes himself rapidly to big city traffic, but of his physical and mental life very little is said or shown. The movie does avoid the cliches (even though these can be the truth) of the country mouse vs. the city mice, yet gives the viewer an adequate, fleeting look at the wonders of a megalopolis modernizing itself. "Westernizing" is another valid term though it might sound supercilious to Chinese ears.
The bicycle was for decades a major "desideratum" of Chinese life -- along with watches, sewing machines and radios. These prized possessions have lost their "must-have" ranking to the fast-moving influx of cars,TVs and other conveniences. Yet bicycles are still of major importance.
Doing nicely in his job Guei is making close to $90 a month and is about to buy his bike. Again, the film does not overdo the gap between wide-eyed provincials and city sophisticates. But this is more than hinted in a funny, nasty-nice sequence.
He must contact a customer, the manager of a ritzy hotel. The supercilious staff at the desk direct him to the establishment's gym in which a puzzled Guei must take an obligatory shower, in, no doubt the first shower stall in his life. Then the befuddled fellow is repeatedly asked to pay for his shower. It takes the manager's appearance to settle this confusion. So far, so good. But then, Guei's bike is stolen. He had wisely marked it, yet his search for it in a city that is awash in two-wheelers must be as hopeless as the proverbial needle-in-the-haystack hunt. Yet he does run into his property! Ho hum.
Jian (Li Bin) is a bikeless student, although his father (not a pauper but definitely not wealthy either) has often promised him one. Here the family relations get tense and complicated. Jian steals money from Dad, goes to a second-hand market, finds and buys Guei's property (what a coincidence!!!) and finally gains status (and a potential, bike-riding girlfriend) among the many bike-owners of his set, all of them good at wheelies and other acrobatics.
After Guei spots his bike in Jian's hands all hell breaks loose. This involves the main characters, miscellaneous young cyclists, changing relationships and a lot of violence. And this is where the movie loses me. It evokes the old saw about the mysterious, if not inscrutable East.
Pretty girls increase in numbers, hardly speak any lines, show no expressions. The overall use of dialogue is sparse by any standards. When language does come in, the subtitles race by so fast and fleetingly that it is hardlly possible to read them fully.
By and large, the many Americans who mistrust foreign films gripe: "I can read the subtitles or watch the images--but not do both." That's viewer laziness, but I admit that here the complaint is justified, especially as the story gets increasing vague, feels like small variations on a theme, with too many long and middle shots and a dearth of close-ups. Add to this that Guei's mode and conditions of living are scarcely shown.
The movie is laden with symbols and metaphors. While the beginning stresses bike traffic, the end shifts to masses of motorized vehicles --an obvious contrast between the older China and the newer.