Beijing Bicycle (Shiqi sui de dan che: 2001) from Mick Locke

            As a guy who commutes most everywhere on bicycle, I very much enjoyed this slice-of-life look at contemporary Beijing, highlighting how a bicycle can advance the life of a working stiff.  This film, directed by Xiaoshuai Wang, has no sex, offers a few discreetly violent beat-downs, and spices the mix with sparse dialogue.  Nonetheless, it picked up some awards at European film festivals, and itís easy to see why.  The plot is advanced mostly through the visuals, and actions speak louder than words.  Best of all from my point of view, the relationships of major characters as well as many minor characters center on bicycles.

             We view a standard contemporary Chinese set-up, with Guei, a taciturn yet stalwart country bumpkin, working hard to make a go of it in the big city.  Virtuous but naÔve, Guei finds work as a bike messenger, and is issued a uniform.  His boss also issues him an upscale mountain bike, on a mandatory buy-in plan, with a big weekly bite of his wages being deducted toward his eventual full ownership.  The employer has bought the bikes wholesale in a lot, yet continues to deduct beyond the point that Guei reckons the bikeís retail price to be paid off.  Yet, for a recently arrived yokel in Beijing Ė a pal reminds him Ė this is still quite a good deal.  We witness Gueiís good-natured diligence over long hours of hard work.

             The street scenes are gritty yet exotic.  Itís amazing to see the crowds of commuters in all manner of work clothes toodling along on two wheels.  Some professional carters on adult tricycles are hauling enormous loads.  In one instance, we see three men trying to transport a refrigerator by bicycle.  But, as the former owner of two bikes which were stolen despite being locked, I fretted over the telltale wimpiness of Gueiís lock.  Sure enough, when he has more than paid off his bicycle, he emerges from a delivery pick-up one day to find no bike at all. 

             How does one touch upon highlights without giving away the plot?  Suffice it to say, Guei finds his stolen bike in the hands of Jian, a lower middleclass high school kid.  Jian is another stock contemporary Chinese character, the moderately privileged, jaded, egocentric city teen.  An interesting portion of the film is devoted to tracking him, off and on, through his aimless after-school pastimes.  He timorously begins to woo a worthy neighboring schoolgirl.  And he hangs out, attempting bicycle stunts with his classmates.  One rival for his girlís interests is quite a studly stunt-rider, a minor character until the last ten minutes of the film.

             One worrisome question is how should a working stiff cope with the theft of a workbike, once heís located it?  Going to the cops seems not to be an option.  And the arrangement worked out between the two main characters is just marginally practical.  But perhaps urban China thrives now and forever on the marginally practical.  These two characters seem to make do, through to the bitter end.  This, by the way, arrives after an amazingly spirited chase scene Ė you guessed it, on bicycles Ė through a warren of narrow streets and alleys.  Actually, the initial unified chase splits into two interweaving chases after the crisscrossing two main characters.  Itís remarkable how much more engaging this scene is than the standard automotive chase you see out of Hollywood.

              In my viewing, Iíve noticed three types of Chinese movie endings.  There are rare films (King of Masks, and Not One Less) which end happily.  There are many films (Raise the Red Lantern, Xiu Xiu the Sent-Down Girl, and The Emperor and the Assassin) which end in utter disaster, and there are films like this which end in qualified, survivable misery.  I believe that this last type is so popular because itís culturally reflective of all the sorrows China has survived over the last seventy years.  That which does not kill them makes them stronger.

NUDITY REPORT

Nudity:  A full-length rear view of Lin Cui (who plays Guei) after an incidental shower

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen letterbox

     An industrious fellow like Guei comes across far more admirably than the jaded and parasitic Jian.  Yet this isnít some sentimental Maoist Working Class Hero depiction.  We see that Guei is far too tongue-tied and clueless for his own good, with tenacity as his greatest asset.  And although Jian is morally shabby, heís probably quite common throughout the lower middleclass third world.  Somehow, despite initial antipathy, these two archetypes manage to get along, or at least not cripple each otherís survival and stumbling progress.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three stars. The very big names didn't review it, but three stars was a typical score.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Voting results: IMDb voters score it 7.4/10,
  • Arthouse distribution, and only in the largest markets. It never reached more than 8 screens.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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