starring Lin Cui, Xun Zhou, Yuanyuan Gao, Shuang Li
screenplay by Peggy Chiao, Hsiao-ming Hsu, Danian Tang, Xiaoshuai Wang
directed by Xiaoshuai Wang
by Walter Chaw The pivotal scene in Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle comes near the end: a gang of young toughs is chasing a country boy and a city boy through a sprawling labyrinth of houses in a questionable section of Beijing; one says to the other, "What are you doing? This doesn't concern you." The other replies, "I don't know my way out." Beijing Bicycle is a sparsely-written allegory of political oppression that has the visual style of an early Beat Takeshi film and the poetic reticence of the Chinese people. It is more about looks than speeches, pauses than action--and the degree to which each character finds its voice speaks volumes as to the level of self-sufficiency and freedom that each character possesses.
It is a film in which a bicycle becomes a unifying symbol of the Pollyannic hope of emancipation from the tyranny of an Orwellian government. Yet the work that Beijing Bicycle's scenario of monumentalism, paranoia, and flight most resembles is Kafka's The Trial. The fifth film by Chinese filmmaker Wang (who, for the first part of his career went under the name of "Wu Ming" ("no name") to escape persecution for his work), Beijing Bicycle is ironically his most overt protest song and his most accomplished. It appears Wang has learned that the best way to promote his activism is not through a fey nom de plume and a veil of obfuscating misdirection, but sheathed in an attractive covering that resembles in equal measure The Red Balloon and The Bicycle Thief.
Liangui Guo (Cui Lin) has never been to the city, so when he gets a job as a bicycle courier that actually gives him the opportunity to earn his bike, he grasps onto the promise with the ardour of a drowning man--the bicycle is hope. (It is important to note that this bicycle has been manufactured in the mythic West.) Days pass and Guo begins to suspect that the "city people" are cheating him of his reward, a suspicion supported by his garrulous uncle Huan (Li Shuang), the owner of a small drugstore: "You mustn't look like you're not from here. City people are mean." It's only a matter of time before Guo's bicycle is stolen, but rather than leave the city, he spends his every waking moment in search of the hope that has been taken from him. Beijing Bicycle's narrative splits to track the bicycle (the film is, after all, more about what the bicycle represents), and as we follow the new owner, we presume that he is also the thief, though it's more complicated than that. Qin (Li Bin) is a child of the middle-class--a new son of China: spoiled, from a broken home, privileged. His troubles--with a girl, with his overachieving little sister, with his inconstant father--seem to pale at first to those of Guo, yet his struggle to distinguish himself in China's oppressive system eventually proves as difficult.
There is interest in whether the guileless and stubborn Guo will find his bicycle. Interest, too, in whether Qin will win the girl he loves back from the rake who has stolen her eye. But the heart of Beijing Bicycle concerns the lengths to which its central youths will go to keep their dreams alive. The Chinese title of the film is, gracefully, "The Bicycle of a Seventeen-Year-Old." One of those seventeen-year-olds will lose hope, and as the camera does a final pull-back to encompass the indifferent bustling of the big city (recall Joseph K's lonesome execution), the other will resolutely carry his broken hope on his back like a cross borne to an uncertain crucifixion.
Beijing Bicycle is a very fine film that, at 110 minutes, is probably fifteen minutes too long, underscoring its themes in the slightly repetitive way that a voice desperate to be heard tends to. Its performances are flawless, its symbols and themes are carried with a satisfying consistency (note that a lovely maid spends the film entirely without speech), and its anger and frustration are palpable. This is the work of a maturing filmmaker, one who marries causes that matter with a sober melancholy and an admirable restraint. And Beijing Bicycle is a small but eloquent "cry freedom" from the new Chinese cinema. Originally published: February 22, 2002.