REVIEW: Beijing Bicycle (2001)

Guei (Cui Lin) travels to Beijing from the Chinese countryside to find work. He is hired as a bicycle courier, and for the first few weeks must sacrifice most of his pay to purchase outright the bike that has been assigned to him. When it is stolen just before he has finished paying it off, Guei is frantic: no bike, no job – and no way to work as a courier to afford another one.

Beijing Bicycle is a 2001 drama by Wang Xiaoshuai, a sixth-generation Chinese filmmaker who – alongside contemporaries like Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, and Diao Yinan – writes and directs politically charged features outside of the government-funded system. Shot on location with a combination of professional and new actors, Beijing Bicycle is a provocative exploration of wealth, status, and the perception of those things, in millennial China. Stylistically the film is in keeping with sixth-generation Chinese cinema; in fact, if you are new to the form then this is arguably one of the best films to act as an introduction. It has a grounded, realistic style that echoes the likes of cinéma vérité or Italian neorealism, independent budgets and restricted production values, a comparative lack of non-diegetic music, and a strong focus on social issues and injustice – particularly in contemporary urban spaces.

While Guei searches the city for his bicycle, it has already been bought for 500 yuan from a second-hand market by Jian (Li Bin), a high school student desperate to impress a girl at school. When, against all odds, Guei rediscovers his stolen bike, it sets off an escalating tit-for-tat of theft, intimidation, and violence between the two. It is notable that for each boy, the bicycle signifies something different. For Guei it represents a career and success; a means of improving his station in the world. For Jian it is a status symbol: he wants it to impress a girl, and earn the admiration of his schoolmates. Jian has grown tired of waiting for his father’s constant promises to buy him one, and even resorts to stealing the money – pegged for his bike, then re-allocated to his sister’s elite education – from his own family. The film treads a little into an ethical quandary: Jian may have stolen the money for the bicycle, but he did not steal the bicycle itself. In the conflict between he and Guei, one can appreciate both of their points of view.

Cui and Li both deliver straightforward, realistic performances, as does the supporting cast which includes Liu Lei as Guei’s best friend Mantis, Zhao Yiwei as Jian’s father, and Li Shuang as a romantic rival for Jian. While most of the cast is new to screen acting, there are a few future stars as well. Gao Yuanyuan (City of Life and Death, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart) plays Xiao, the object of Jian’s affections, while Zhou Xun (Our Time Will Come, Cloud Atlas) plays a mysterious rich young woman that Guei and Mantis spy through an upstairs window. Her backstory, once revealed, offers yet another look at perceptions of wealth.

This is a socially conscious story, told simply but astutely. It deliberately refuses to present the situation in black and white, and it doesn’t waste time or effort in honey-coating the injustices and wealth disparities of contemporary China. Even more than 20 years on, it is an exceptional film.

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