Beijing Rocks (2001)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-10-03
“Beijing Rocks” begins with quickly cut shots that alternate between a vibrant late night music scene and the more sedate daytime tourist places—fountains, markets, contrasting architecture— as observed by Michael Wu. Michael is the perfect picture of alienation, lonely in a crowd, apathetic and rootless—the opposite of what a model citizen of the People’s Republic should be. Since Michael is a visitor from Hong Kong his always present viewfinder serves as a way for the audience to witness the gritty life of Chinese rockers and their girlfriends.

The story unfolds through the three pair of characters who overlap and interact. There is Road, the leather-clad rebel who is the lead singer and composer for the ragtag band of rockers and Yang Yin, his longsuffering and ravishing girlfriend. A second pair is Michael and Yang Yin while the third is Michael and Wu De Hui, his father who is back in Hong Kong trying to pull some strings to get serious assault charges against Michael dismissed.

The relationship between Road and Yang is nothing new—a misunderstood artist (who occasionally acts like a petulant child) and the woman who loves him even knowing that he cheats on her, sabotages the group’s chance to sign a record deal and runs away whenever he is faced with a difficult decision. It is difficult to identify with Road—in any burgeoning area of music there will be an army of more or less talented people who don’t get the break they need but he goes out of his way to insure he won’t succeed.

Michael is clearly infatuated with Yang—as is the audience. Played with perfectly unselfconscious sexiness by Shu Qi, Yang is the girl that every guy wants to know, to sleep with, to hang around with—she is a dream girl. Totally committed to Road who treats her horribly, Yang responds to Michael enough to hold hands with him when they take a walk but immediately returns to her true love.

Michael is the son of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman. Wu De Hui is represented only by text messages or voice mails on Michael’s mobile phone until the end of the movie when Michael returns to Hong Kong to face the charges against him. He has been on the mainland trying to meet some music industry big shots and interest them in his saccharine love songs but instead tags along with Road and his group.

As is the case in Hollywood movies the heartless record company execs who think only of the bottom line who keep the real artist (Road) from reaching his potential. The confrontation scene between the two A&R guys and Road is a by-the-numbers exercise in artistic outrage complete with exterior shots of the huge, soulless skyscrapers where the record company has its offices. The problem, at least for this Western observer, is that while censorship and lack of artistic freedom certainly exist in the PRC one imagines the government would be more interested in keeping the lid on things.

Movies have been made about musicians and composers almost since the Lumiere Brothers first cranked a camera. Most of them haven’t been very good for a few reasons. One is that most musicians aren’t terribly interesting other than when they are performing. Oliver Stone tried it with Jim Morrison in 1991, Anthony Mann did a biopic of Glenn Miller in 1954, Alfred Green’s now campy “The Jolson Story” was released in 1946. Neither they nor other screen depictions of popular musicians captured the visceral energy, boundless talent and sheer star power that made them icons.

There is a very funny scene in which Shu Qi and the other dancers in her troupe handle a drunken lout who climbs onto the stage trying to manhandle them. He is dispatched with a whack on the head with a stiletto heel—the girls clearly know how to deal guys who get out of control. The matter is dealt with by the local police since a wound must be at least four centimeters long to be referred to “the bureau” (according to the subtitles) and his cut is only 3.5 centimeters. Shu Qi makes this movie—she lights things up when she is onscreen and we wait for her return when the focus is on the guys.