“You’re so stubborn!”
Director Xiaoshuai Wang has a rather short filmography, composed of six titles released over the past nine years. He usually writes his own screenplays, as is the case with last year’s Beijing Bicycle (original Chinese title — Shiqi sui de dan che), his most successful film internationally to date. The film received a high degree of critical approval upon its release and was also the recipient of the Jury Grand Prize (Silver Bear) at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival. Beijing Bicycle was recently given a Region 1 release by Columbia and is now also made available in Canada by Seville Pictures in a version which pretty much mirrors the Columbia one. It’s the Seville version that’s reviewed here.
Guei is a young man recently arrived in Beijing from the countryside where he grew up. He is eking out an existence with a relative when his fortunes begin to look up when he gets a job with an express courier company. Part of the deal is a neat-looking, white, mountain bike that the company provides, with the opportunity for Guei to own it outright after he works for the company for a while. Just when he reaches the point where the bicycle is his, it is stolen from in front of a building where he’s making a delivery. With no bike, he has no job, so he searches frantically and one would think fruitlessly throughout the city for it. Amazingly, he discovers it in the possession of Jian, a high school student who apparently purchased it at a flea market. For Jian, the bike is a necessity in order to be part of his high school “society,” not to mention a vehicle to attract his neighbourhood girlfriend Xiao. Guei manages to steal his bike back, but Jian catches up with him, and after a lengthy standoff, the two reach a compromise that may work for both of them.
Beijing Bicycle is a delight of a movie whose almost two-hour running time seems to fly by, belying the relative simplicity of its story. Much of the reason for that is the portrait of Beijing itself and Beijing life that we are treated to. Smoothly integrated into the story without seeming like a travelogue, we see both the modern aspect of the city in the new, modern office towers that more and more dominate its skyline, contrasted with the relative poverty in which many of its residents still live, particularly the many who have migrated from the countryside in hopes of a better future. The bicycle is at the centre of the film’s plot, but its continued importance as a mode of transport in the city is clearly shown. The main streets are still littered with bicycle traffic, sometimes chaotically so, making the coexistence with cars a dicey proposition at best. Having seen this personally some ten years ago, it was a slight surprise to see how significant (and welcome, given the pollution implications) the bicycle’s role still is in Beijing. One of the most fascinating things we see is the degree to which the bicycle is the moving van of the ordinary Chinese citizen. You name it, they transport it on the back of their bicycle — animals, sofas, beds, car parts, other bicycles. It might look pretty precarious, but somehow it works (at least, most of the time).
As the film makes clear, the bicycle is more than a simple mode of transport or even a necessity of work. It’s clearly also a status symbol necessary to be part of the gang at the high school level, not to mention a key for attracting girlfriends — much in the way a car functions in North America. Thus it becomes almost a character itself in the way it controls the fortunes of the film’s two human protagonists. Guei can’t do his job and improve his standard of living without it; Jian can’t be part of the group or keep Xiao’s interest without it. Even their “solution” to dealing with who actually owns the bike doesn’t really work; for half a bike, so to speak, only leads to frustration rather than even modest contentment.
Part of Beijing Bicycle‘s success is the literate, measured, and frequently non-verbal way in which it tells its story. It relies on its characters to convey their emotions primarily through facial expression or body language rather than words or physical actions. When the latter do occur, they have much greater impact as a result. (The same is true of some [not all, mind you] of the violent aspects of the film. Like much of classical Hollywood cinema, such events are allowed to happen offscreen, trusting the audience to conceive of what happened in its mind. Then showing the aftermath, almost as a sort of test, as in “here’s the actual result; what did you visualize?”) The reliance on facial expression and so on only works because the actors portraying Guei and Jian (Cui Lin and Li Bin respectively) are skillful performers indeed. Both have little acting background as far as I am aware, but obviously both appear to have a bright future.
It is quite possible to read more into this film than may appear on the surface. I’ve seen suggestions about the story really being about the clash between the developing and the developed world or a struggle between the classes. I think trying to shoehorn it into one of those boxes takes much of the joy out of it. Of course, you’re free to read into it what you will. Far better, however, in my opinion, to enjoy it as the superior entertainment it is and to revel in the detailed picture of Beijing it portrays. The neighbourhood life depicted (the communal tap, the shared toothbrush, the old men who play on at their board game while bikes race back and forth around them, the dynamics of high school gangs and their members’ sometimes surprising rationality) is truly worth the price of admission in itself.
I’ve not seen Columbia TriStar’s Region 1 DVD release of Beijing Bicycle, but from what I’ve read, it sounds as though Seville’s current DVD version mirrors that of Columbia’s to a large degree. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very nice-looking. Aside from the odd, stray speckle and scratch, the image is clean and clear with a very natural-looking appearance. Colours are true-to-life and bright. Blacks are deep and pure and shadow detail is good. There are some instances of edge enhancement, but not to the point of distraction. Seville continues its good record of fine DVD transfers.
The audio is a Chinese language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track that provides a solid, workmanlike presentation of the dialogue and pleasing musical background in the film. Use of the surrounds is infrequent, but subtly effective when it does occur. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
Unfortunately, Seville has not provided any supplements of relevance to the film, not even the theatrical trailer that was present on the Columbia DVD release. This is an instance where even the normally brief cast and crew notes on many discs would have been very welcome. There are trailers for three other Seville releases (Kandahar, Fire, Three Seasons).
For anyone with the slightest interest in other cultures and a taste for a literate, deceptively simple tale, Beijing Bicycle fills the bill. Fine acting and a nicely-paced, thoughtfully-shot story reward anyone willing to take a chance on something out of the ordinary. Seville’s DVD transfer is a solid effort, even though it does lack any related supplementary material. Recommended.