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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Beijing Bicycle
Beijing Bicycle
Seville Pictures // PG-13 // August 13, 2002
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted November 9, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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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 and 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.

Video

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.

Audio

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.

Extras

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.

Final thoughts

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.

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