Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An absorbing Chinese spin on the neo-realist Bicycle Thief, this colorful and stylized
tale of work, possession and loss on the modern streets of Beijing is only superficially similar
to the Italian classic. Xiaoshuai Wang's film has a first-person immediacy, but its bleak message
about the unfairness of interpersonal relations isn't entirely convincing.
Guei (Cui Lin) is a country boy come to Beijing to find his fortune. He stays
at his brother's tiny market, and together they spy on the beautiful and apparently rich young
woman who lives next door. Guei gets a job at an aggressive messenger service that fronts their young
men with shiny new mountain bikes. The new Beijing-ite works hard, and soon is close to earning
full ownership of the bike .... until it's stolen. The apparent culprit is Jian (Li Bin), a schoolboy
who needs it to stay current with his trendy friends, and to impress the
girl he barely can make himself talk to, Qin (Zhou Xun ). Humiliated by his boss, Guei sets out to
find the bike, and by a near-miracle in the city of millions, connects with the teenaged thief ...
only to be accused of theft in reverse, and set upon by Xiao's friends. Jian didn't steal the
bicycle, not directly, anyway ... The solution isn't as simple as just getting
the bike back, and a strange, destructive relationship is born.
Beijing Bicycle is too complicated and serious to be ignored, even as watching it becomes increasingly
unpleasant. At first the selfish schoolboy and his friends seem like boorish creeps, but familiarity
makes Jian more sympathetic, especially when he loses his girlfriend and the respect of his family. The
boy' is certainly righteous and innocent, and wisely keeps his temper regardless of the horrible
provocations placed in his way. In the most basic, black & white terms, he's the wronged party, and the
beatings and humiliation he suffers are an outrage; most viewers will be frustrated when there's no
simple solution for the crime. And everyone will feel even more uncomfortable when Guei compromises
his ownership of the bike in a deal with the unpredictable Jian.
Cui Lin is very impressive as the messenger Guei, knowing he's not as glib as those around him (perhaps not
even speaking the same exact dialect?) and slow to react to people. When he remains stoically silent -
at his Boss's clear invitations to defend himself verbally, at the thugs' browbeating, insults and
accusations - he shows great fortitude, but not a whole lot of understanding of other people's
feelings or how to interact with them. He's also inflexible and uncommunicative - as evidenced by his
suspicious, silent reaction to the office lady's insistence that he has just a bit more to earn on his
bike. She may be short-changing him, but his sullen bulldog look isn't going to make matters better.
This country mouse Guei is always afraid of 'breaking the rules', and gets himself into foolish trouble,
as when he allows himself to be 'ordered' into the expensive bath house. With his brother, he worships
the girl next door. She wouldn't have been the impossible dream he thinks she is, if he just talked to her.
Li Bin, in his trim school suit, is Jian, a middleclass kid trying to keep up appearances among
more affluent peers, and he's just as pigheaded as Guei. Dad breaks 'promises' because Sis needs
money for school. Jian doesn't care. He steals from his family because he figures the promised money
is rightfully his, and there's no room for understanding. But in his way he's just as shy as Guei,
unable to really talk to his girlfriend, even though she's more than open and inviting with him.
There's a symmetry to each boy's personal plight. Guei's bicycle dreams are ruined, just before
fulfillment, by Jian's (2nd-hand) theft. Guei's counter-theft interrupts Jian just as he's about to
affections for Qin. On each side of the struggle is an uncommunicative, stubborn guy with no awareness of
anything larger than his own needs. Both young men want the same things, and have no direct quarrel with
each other, really.
The story concentrates on the bicycle war - who has it, and for how long. It goes back and forth
several times, with Guei mercilessly assaulted by Jian's friends, who at first think Guei is the thief.
When they no longer believe that, they callously make up all kinds of unilateral reasons why Guei should
give up, working backward from the assumption that the bike is now the property of Jian. The struggle is
an emotional beating that we feel too.
Although the director has stated that his story is about his adolescent memories, one can't
escape the impression that the enterprise is meant to represent human relations on a larger
scale. Guei might be a smaller, less developed country grappling with Jian, a more cosmopolitan,
spoiled, selfish one. Both want what they want - territory, say. The righteous claim diminishes under
the weight of 'international' politics that lean in favor of the wrongdoer, and can even 'spin' the truth
to make the wrongdoer and victim change identities. A rough truce is worked out for a spell, but the
strain on both countries is too much - the smaller one is outraged and seeks a justice that's not in the
cards, while the slightly more powerful country, its domestic balance upset and its allies alienated,
Beijing Bicycle has an endistancing aestheticism that encourages interpretations like this. At
the very least, it should make us think about the many small injustices we accept in our day to day living,
merely because we're on the winning side of the equation.
Director Xiaoshuai Wang makes Beijing a visually fascinating city. The glass
office blocks are contrasted with the neighborhoods where buildings are separated only by footpaths.
A man serenely practices his T'ai Chi as racing bicycles crash around him. When pedaling through the mobs
on the thoroughfares, Guei is one in a million. Home is a couple of square feet of space in his
brother's quarters. The Chinese businessmen we see are as varied as anywhere else - generous, obstinate,
One predilection of the director I didn't care for is his staging of accidents, discoveries, and surprises.
Every time there's a crash or a 'shocking' moment, like when the beauty from next door accidentally
knocks herself senseless in the brother's shop, the show comes to a static halt for a moment of silence.
Nobody rushes to help anyone, nobody speaks. It's a construction reminiscent of a silent movie gag,
only there's no gag. The mood in the film is anything but humorous, and by the fourth or fifth of these
moments, their meaning or intention is lost. As a stylistic touch, it detracts from the realism of the
show, and makes us think that the director is purposely avoiding any satisfying contact between his
Savant found Beijing Bicycle interesting but a chore to watch, as it was one painful
situation and awkward confrontation from one end to the other, enlivened by a few surprises but made
rather depressing by the Zola-like insistence on grim and violent consequences for every innocent
act. A very good show, for a serious mood.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Beijing Bicycle is a beautiful disc. The colors stand out and every nuance
of the careful photography is made clear by the 16:9 enhancement. The only extra is the dazzling
trailer that got my attention in the theater last winter.
The box copy talks about the 'teeming masses' of Beijing, the same term used in old Terry & the
Pirates and every other pre-PC depiction of Asians, always as masses, and never individuals. The
text also gussies up the drama by saying the two boys 'have a voyage of self-discovery that neither
one of them will ever forget', a phrase that has nothing to do with this movie. The whole point of
Beijing Bicycle is that its young men are nigh-incapable of self-discovery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beijing Bicycle rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 26, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson