Beijing Bicycle (Shiqi sui de dan che)
China (2001) Dir. Wang Xiaoshuai
Katie Melua famously sang “There are nine million bicycles in Beijing” which, if accurate, would make it very difficult to find one if it had been stolen. That is just one of the problems the protagonist of Wang Xiaoshuai’s award film faces.
Arriving in Beijing from the country, 17 year-old Guei (Cui Lin) starts work as a delivery courier, earning 20% commission and a bike which must be paid for after which he gets a rise to 50% commission. After a month Guei is one day away from earning his bike when it is stolen, the inability to make the delivery costing him his job. However Guei’s boss (Xie Jian) agrees to reinstate him if he can find the bike.
By chance Guei finds the bike in the possession of schoolboy Jian (Li Bin) and steals the bike back. Jian and his schoolmates hunt Guei down forcefully take the bike back. This opens a huge can of worms for the two boys, not in the least the muddled truth over the bike’s ownership.
Comparisons between this film and Vittori Di Sica’s neo realist masterwork Bicycle Thieves are not by accident as Wang was openly influenced by it in using the bike as a symbol for his commentary on the social caste system in turn of the millennium China. It might not seem obvious to some eyes but the bike is more than just a method of transport for both Guei and Jian.
For two boys with nothing the bike represents an escape from their lowly social standing, albeit in ways unique to both. In Guei’s case, much like in Bicycle Thieves, the bike is his means to a living and sense of self worth – no bike, no job. For Jian, it is a status symbol that hides the truth of his poverty and gives him a sense of belonging.
For non-Asian audiences the status led discrimination by the city folk towards people from the country will seem disarming and unjust but to know this helps to make sense of much of what occurs in this film. That is not to justify it as it is quite hard to watch but Wang’s motive for this tale is to hold a mirror up to such injustices.
Guei may be scruffily dressed and quiet but he is a diligent worker yet is still looked down upon by everyone. On the fateful job when the bike is stolen, Guei enters a health spa to collect a document and asks for Mr. Zhang, and is sent through into the main complex where he is forced to take a shower. It turns out he was sent to the wrong Mr. Zhang yet the receptionist demands he pays for the shower! The real Mr. Zhang lets him off but has a parting dig at how there was no way Geui could afford a shower.
Jian’s situation is equally marred by social status. Despite living in an affluent area, he is the only one of his group who can’t afford a bike; his step-father (Zhao Yiwei) has promised for years to buy one, instead spending the money on his own daughter Rong Rong (Zhou Fanfei). But it seems the true motive for Jian wanting a bike is to impress local rich girl Xiao (Gao Yuanyuan) and to cycle alongside her every day to school.
Wang throws in a further moral dilemma to muddy the waters over the ownership of the bike, as it was indeed stolen but not by Jian, who paid for it in good faith with money he stole from his stepfather. Each time Guei reclaims his bike, Xiao and Jian’s mates all say the same thing to Jian: “It’s just a bike”, failing to recognise Jian can’t afford 500 Yuan at the drop of a hat.
One has wonder why Guei didn’t just speak up and say the bike was from his employer and can prove it. Instead he says nothing except “it’s my bike”, partly because of the aforementioned dictum of country folk knowing their place in the city. Conversely the snobbery of Jian’s mates is exposed by their assumption Guei can afford such a smart bike just because they all can.
The many assertions made by Wang in this film must have touched a nerve as it was banned in China until 2004, because Wang entered it into the Berlin Film Festival without approval. however this wasn’t an act of rebellion, more due to time constraints as the cuts demanded by the film board would have delayed its entrance into the festival. Even then the eventual 2004 featured eight edits.
Most of the cast were first time actors, with many doing very little again afterwards although they all do a great job in their roles, especially Cui Lin and Li Bin as Guei and Jian respectively. Only Gao Yuanyuan, who played Xiao, was an established actress and went on to have a successful career, occasionally crossing over to Hong Kong where she starred alongside such megastars as Jackie Chan and Louis Koo.
There is another already familiar face in this film who is now one of Chinese top stars and best actresses, Zhou Xun. She appears in a seemingly unrelated subplot in which Guei and his shop owner friend/landlord Mantis (Liu Lei) watch from afar as she parades around her home in the latest fashions, often buying soy sauce or wine from the shop. In fact this is a deceptive and clever adjunct that underlines everything Wang has been saying in the film about social status.
Beijing Bicycle may owe a debt or two to Bicycle Thieves but it is its own film with its own points to make. Wang is quietly savage in his opprobrium, delivering it with subtle strokes via an unfussy mise-en-scene that captures both the best and worst sides of Beijing.
Simple yet sublime.