Beijing Bicycle (2001)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-07-11
Beijing Bicycle begins as a story of young love and becomes a harrowing, blood drenched look at class conflict and the its potentially murderous consequences in China's capital city. It begins with shots of men from the countryside being interviewed as bicycle messengers for a busy document delivery company. They are the almost perfectly unsophisticated, unable to estimate how much they were paid while in the country and willing to do just about any job available. One of them is Guei who becomes the top earner in the company, able to make enough in a month to pay off the mountain bike the company has provided to him and earn a much better payout from each delivery. Guei lives with Mantis an older friend/cousin from the country who has a tiny store in an alley. From there they are able to gaze at Qin, a resident of a luxury building that overlooks their alley. Qin, played by Zhou Xun, is as much a part of the "real" Beijing as the building she lives in or the high fashion outfits she wears. Their only contact with her is when she stops into the store occasionally to buy soy sauce.

The day that Guei finishes paying for his bike it is stolen and he is fired. Since the bike is the only way Guei can earn enough to stay in Beijing and also because he has a single-minded determination to find his it, he tracks it down. The bike is with Jian, a working class teenager who strives to be like the group of guys in his class at a private school and who are from wealthier families than he. Jian lives with his mother, stepfather and stepsister in a crowded working class apartment. The bike itself is an example of the class divide between Jian and his friends from school. He doesn't have a bicycle when we first encounter him but is able to buy a used bike--it turns out to be Guei's stolen bike . His friends all have new bikes given them by their parents, people who could live in the same type of apartment as Qin, the unobtainable beauty who entrances Guei. Jian now fits in with his buddies and has the self confidence to approach Xiao a beautful classmate who, it turns out, has had her eye on him. She is played by Gao Yuanyuan.

There are gaping holes in the plot of "Beijing Bicycle" which are hard to overlook because they are crucial to the way the action unfolds. In one of them Jian is told by his stepfather that Jian won't be getting a bike because the money his stepfather had been saving must go to pay school fees for his stepsister. Jian explodes and the audience learns that, at least from his point of view, that this is just one of a series of broken promises so we aren't surprised when the money for his bike turns out to be the money his stepfather had been saving. The problem here isn't that Jian found and took the money but that a family that lives in a warren of slapdash apartments with communal plumbing could have enough extra money to send two children to expensive private schools.

Jian and his friends dress in school uniforms--blue blazers, white shirts, red ties--and we generally see them in the afternoon and evening, still dressed that way but with shirttails hanging and ties stuffed in pockets. He desperately wants to fit in with them. Guei is a loner. He has not social skills, is intimidated to speechlessness by almost every encounter with anyone on a higher social level than he--which is just about everyone. He is happy sleeping on the floor of the store, riding his bike both while making deliveries and just to ride, and passing the time with his only friend Mantis. A great example of the chasm between Guei and Jian is in personal hygiene. In the morning Jian walks through long hallways and across alleyways passing others who are getting ready for their day including a woman who is standing at a sink brushing her teeth. He stops for a moment to get a quick cup of water from the faucet. We see Guei on the other side of town squatting next to Mantis who is brushing his teeth while holding a cup of water. Mantis finishes and offers his toothbrush and the water to Guei. He hesitates but then takes it and starts brushing--clearly he hadn't brought one with him from the country. A communal sink is one indicator of class, a communal toothbrush is another altogether.

Unlike the lead actors the young actresses in "Beijing Bicycle" (each of the characters are seventeen years old) don't have much to do. Qin, Zhou Xun's character, is superfluous to the plot and structure of the movie--her scenes could be cut and not missed. Qin's story could be told as a short film in itself. Gao Yuanyuan who plays Xiao has more screen time than Zhou Xun and Xiao, unlike Qin, actually has a few lines to speak but after a promising start her role disappears into the background.

Viewers have drawn comparisons between "Beijing Bicycle" and "The Bicycle Thief" based on some obvious similarities (bicycles, thievery) which I don't think stand up well to closer scrutiny. Vittorio De Sica's film is a masterpiece, the high point of Italian neo-realism and probably the most highly praised movie of the post World War II decade. Wang Xiao-shuai's film can only suffer in an attempt to bracket them.