2001, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai. Starring Cui Lin, Li Bin, Zhuo Xun, Gao Yuanyuan, Li Shuang, Xie Jian.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., March 8, 2002
Gwei (Cui Lin) is a dazed newcomer from a rural province, hoping to make good as a courier for the Fei Da Express Delivery service. Jian (Li Bin) is a teenage vocational schooler with a smarty-pants sister, a cash-strapped dad, and thuggish friends and a pretty girl (Zhou Xun) to impress. Both of them need the same thing: an “upscale” mountain bike that stands apart in form and function from the sea of bicycles flowing through the busy streets of Beijing. When Gwei's bike is stolen after a particularly difficult delivery, it makes its way into Jian's hands. And there you have the essence of this simple drama, which alludes aggressively to De Sica's neorealist masterpiece The Bicycle Thief in that it likewise ties a man's livelihood, dignity, and identity to his two-wheeled conveyance. Similar too is the film's tragicomic tone; however, for what it's worth, this is perhaps a lighter statement than director Wang Xiaoshuai's previous efforts, such as Frozen, a bleak, polemical production about a performance artist's attempt to freeze himself to death as a protest against repression. Beijing Bicycle isn't anyone's idea of a knee-slapper -- it's quite upfront in depicting the thoroughgoing, frequently violent hostility between the locals and the desperate newcomers who've come to Beijing after failing to eke out a living in farming or construction. (It's not giving too much away to say that the conclusion contains a grim, ugly surprise.) Still, the film is often quietly humorous, just the same. In one subplot, Gwei's roommate spies on the beautiful woman in a nearby apartment, berating her as a “city girl” with a “big pile of clothes,” only to find out the truth in the final act. Wang also compares Gwei and Jian's adventures with clever cross-cutting: Both try without success to look cool while smoking, and both have run-ins with the same hot-dogging biker (Li Shuang). Another plus is the film's appealing streetwise aesthetic, which may seem surprising to audiences accustomed to the sweeping panorama of the historical fare of mainland China's so-called “Fifth Generation.” But too much of the film seems slack and paceless, drifting along on the dreamlike rhythms of city life, for it to be truly engaging. In his attempts to make a textbook art film, Wang seems to have overlooked one of the many virtues of The Bicycle Thief: its succinctness.