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[whitespace] 'Beijing Bicycle'
Cycle of ViolencE Cui Lin (left) and Li Bin both covet the same bicycle in Beijing.


A bike messenger faces trouble in 'Beijing Bicycle'

By Richard von Busack

THE NEOREALIST film Beijing Bicycle, by Wang Xiaoshuai, is heavily modeled on De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, but it misses the grace, the humor of its source, and can be safely categorized as regional cinema. There is an extremely clever kink in the story that comes out later; and there's the mild fun of seeing the scenes of downtown Beijing by bicycle. Much of the film, though, consists of a load of tragedy, foretold in advance, aided by wild coincidence and undergone in detail.

Guei (Cui Lin) is a fresh arrival from the country, so backward he doesn't even have a toothbrush of his own (he shares it with a friend). He lands a job as a bike messenger, and as soon as we see his working conditions and the plump smugness of his boss, we're dreading what must come. Guei must earn a new mountain bike from the company store at 600 yuan (about $70) before making money on his own. The inevitable happens: Guei's bike is stolen when he's within a few dollars of paying the debt off.

We cut to a slightly richer outskirts of town, where Jian (Li Bin), a student at a private school, is horsing around at a construction site with a group of his lower-class friends, performing tricks on their bikes. Jian is riding the stolen bike, and we make some snap judgments: he's a spoiled rich kid who slums, and he took the means of Guei's livelihood for no better reason than to impress a girl he's sweet on. But the film takes us into some unexpected directions when it turns out Jian's parents aren't rich but must sacrifice everything to keep their son in school. And Jian's guilt--which looks open and shut--isn't as clear as it seems.

When Jian and Guei meet, it's a stalemate. While Guei isn't violent, the poor boy is stubborn, clinging to his former bike like a limpet. And he bawls when nothing else will help him. The last third of the film is poorly paced and battering, restaging the same problems over and over. The earlier freewheeling tours of Beijing break down into a standoff caused by the coincidental encounters of Guei with a pack of bullies. (We see his route map, and it is all of Beijing--in that huge city, how come he keeps running into this same bunch of kids?)

Yet, despite the awkwardness and tormented overacting, Beijing Bicycle has some worthwhile elements: the fresh scenery, the back alleys of Peking, the views of China in transition. Part of that transition is contained in the sensibility of Xiaoshuai, who doesn't fall for easy stories of crime and punishment. Though Beijing Bicycle isn't a patch on De Sica, it's worthy of the great Italian director's conclusions: the humiliation of stealing matches the humiliation of being stolen from.

Beijing Bicycle (PG-13; 113 min.), directed and written by Wang Xiaoshuai, photographed by Liu Jie and starring Cui Lin and Li Bin, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the February 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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