As Beijing Bicycle (Shiqi sui de dan che) opens, we meet a group of anxious
young men who have come to Beijing in the hopes of getting a good job. They're
being interviewed, it seems, and soon we discover for what: the position of
bicycle messenger for a successful delivery company. For Guei (Lin Cui), his
hopes and dreams center around the bicycle that he has been given by the
company; part of his earnings each day goes toward paying for the bicycle.
Within a month, it is nearly his.
The first half of the film is
very well done, as we get to know Guei, whose job as a bicycle messenger is a
dream come true for a country boy with limited experience of the city and
relatively few prospects. We get a glimpse into a world that's both like and
unlike Western cities; in a way, we share Guei's naiveté and sense of wonder as
he weaves his way through Beijing with deliveries to important businessmen in
their posh hotels and offices.
When Guei's beloved bicycle is
stolen, it opens up a new window into Beijing life, as we follow the bicycle to
the hands of Jian (Bin Li). He's as young as Guei, but his life couldn't be
more different: for him, the bicycle is his ticket to impressing a girl, being
on equal footing with his group of bike-riding friends, and showing independence
from his parents. The story doesn't end there, however. Since for Guei the
bicycle is his only means of earning a living, his concern, logically enough,
is to get it back by hook or by crook. It's at this point that the previously
well-paced Beijing Bicycle slows and begins to bog down. By the end of
the film, poor Guei has gone through attempt after attempt to rescue his
bicycle, and time and again he's brought trouble onto his own head either
through his own incompetence or the malice of others. It becomes tedious: the
story isn't really advanced by the repetition of this plot cycle, and nothing
new is revealed about Guei's character in the scenes where he's beaten up again
Toward the end, several
sub-threads to the plot develop slightly, but without ever becoming
particularly relevant to the overall story. A recurring reference to the woman
next door to Guei's friend, who comes on a regular basis to buy soy sauce, is
brought more to the front by the end of the film, but it's never clear what
significance she is supposed to have either to the story or to the characters.
Similarly, several scenes between Jian and his friends present wordless
interactions that are presumably important, but that to this reviewer were
extremely cryptic; most likely these scenes require some additional familiarity
with the characters' culture.
Beijing Bicycle is a
curious film, one that seems to have an optimistic outlook at the beginning,
only to gradually wind down into pessimism, or at least to the suggestion that
life might be something to be suffered through with gritted teeth rather than
embraced. Both Guei and Jian are faced with situations that fall short of their
hopes and dreams; both boys make some poor choices but, at least in Guei's
case, also show the potential to improve their situation on their own. The
film's conclusion is an ambiguous one, leaving the viewer to decide what, if
anything, Guei's struggle over his bicycle really meant, or what will become of
him and Jian. Had the film been approximately half its running time of 111
minutes, I would most likely have been completely charmed by it; as it is, it
was worth watching but not re-watching.
Beijing Bicycle is
presented in an attractive 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from Seville Pictures.
The greatest flaw of the image is the presence of heavy edge enhancement, which
is visible as distinct haloes around objects in many scenes, as well as
reducing the overall detail present in long shots. Apart from that, the image
is nice-looking. The print is very clean, with neither print flaws nor noise
being apparent. Colors are bright and lively where appropriate and subdued when
necessary. One pleasing feature is that the subtitles are optional.
It is worth noting that the DVD
edition reviewed here, distributed by Seville Pictures, is not the same
transfer as an earlier, non-anamorphic release through Columbia Tristar. The
Seville release can be identified by the fact that the cover features the image
of Jian riding the bicycle, in his white shirt and red tie, rather than a
montage of images from the film including both characters.
The Dolby 2.0 Chinese
(Mandarin) track for Beijing Bicycle is quite satisfactory; dialogue
appears to be clear, the theme music is nicely handled, and ambient effects are
clean and distinct.
The special features on this
disc are minimal, consisting of trailers for Kandahar, Fire, and Three
Seasons. Of more note is the fact that there are English and French
subtitles available, along with the option to watch the film without subtitles.
Beijing Bicycle starts
off with a great deal of promise, but it doesn't in the end deliver the goods,
as the story stalls out and becomes repetitive in the second half. While I
didn't find the development of the story to be entirely satisfying, I did enjoy
getting a glimpse into another culture through the experiences of Guei and
Jian; for that reason, it's certainly a good choice as a rental. If you do
choose to buy, be aware that it's the Seville edition, not the Columbia Tristar
one, that offers an anamorphic transfer.