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Beijing Bicycle
cast: Ciu Lin, Li Bin, Gao Yuanyuan, Li Shuang, and Zhou Xun

director: Wang Xiaoshuai

113 minutes (PG) 2001
widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Easy does it with the start of Beijing Bicycle (aka: Shiqi Sui De Dan Che), introducing us to Guo Liangui (Ciu Lin) an economic migrant from the countryside landing a job with a courier service that supplies the silver mountain bicycle that he in time will own. Conclusions are jumped to that the ownership of the bicycle is the precious objective of the narrative as he slogs his way through various small and major incidents trying not to alert others to his illegal status in the city of Beijing. Gently may the film move forward but the plotting is of supremely delicate and remarkable balance, made up of an above average quota of shifts and predicaments that delivers the viewer to the journey's conclusion pricked with feelings of warmth, surprise, frustration and, possibly, delayed shock. When the bicycle is stolen, Guo's failure to deliver the package, not the loss of the bicycle that was virtually his, deposes him from his job. Guo and his boss (Xei Jian) come to an agreement that under the unlikely circumstances that he recovers the bicycle then his job will be returned to him. A bicycle in Beijing is quickly equated to a needle in a haystack as the following montage depicts most travel and life itself conducted on two wheels. The apparent thief is a schoolboy, Jian (Li Bin) who has been promised a bicycle for too long by a stepfather (Zhao Yiwei) who wishes now to use the dowry to school the prodigious sister instead, but what the boy has stolen is not the bike but the money with which to buy it from a shady trader.
   The chance tracing of the mountain bike results in the preposterous necessity for Guo to 'steal' it back, only to be caught and declared a thief himself and have the bike returned to the schoolboy. He traces Jian home, steals back the bicycle and returns to work, but is located himself by the school friends that would sooner believe their wronged buddy. His illegal status means that he can do little to complain. Unable to turn to the authorities he goes to the boys' stepfather, a honest working man made furious by the revelation, but the return of the bicycle does not end the trouble, as the school friends in their own warped take on things offer their services once again to bring pressure down on the stubborn Guo to part with the mountain bike or come to an agreement. The situation becomes apparently resolved only for the schoolboy's jealousy and resentment to rear in other ugly forms and the two fall foul of it, the innocent Guo, our tragic hero returning to square one, perhaps even to a more terrible fate, the film departing with a worrisome ambiguity etched in place, that shall go unheralded here.
   The bicycle is more than a symbol of ownership; it is one of peerage, sociability and the portal to romantic encounters; for Jian the beautiful Xiao (Gao Yuanyan) who he is able to now ride alongside. The city is static without the bicycle, would collapse without this simple invention. Stunt bicyclists are local heroes, children commute to school socially on them; one is nobody without a basic two-set of wheels. We are served a reminder of how alien the city is to Guo, and Guo to the city when he becomes confused by revolving doors while his unfamiliarity with city behaviour leads to a lack of challenge to potential situations, leading to him being mistakenly instructed to take an shower in a health spa, believing that this is expected of the messenger collecting a package from such an address. Even the more experienced residents of the city, the kiosk running relative with whom he resides, impressed at his occupation and the wonders it will permit him to see, can only fantasise what takes place in some of the richer core city environments: "I hear that there's music playing in hotel toilets... I wouldn't be able to pee."
   The viewer admires Guo for his determination, honesty and resilience in the face of everything that he is subjected to. It is unclear how much we are supposed to identify with Jian, remote as he is from guilt and culpability, abhorrently selfish and with no qualms about resorting to violence. He has lost a father, his stepfather would try and do the best for him, but is a promise breaker and as the boy approaches young adulthood the deadline for the delivery on those incessant wishes seems lost to him and on the family. His frustrations are understandable, more so once accepted by a Western viewer the importance of the bicycle as a status symbol in Chinese culture.
   There is a great sense of narrative and a livelier sense of detail to Wang's film, proof that four screenwriters needn't make a dog of a script, with at least three of them having substantial influence in the finished work (Peggy Chiao, Hsu Hsiao-Ming, and Xiaosbuai) the benefit should also be given the fourth credited name, Tang Danian. It is an offering of a film that comfortably moves between episodes of silence and dialogue with little notice, a tribute to the staging and to the cinematography, the latter responsibility falling to Liu Jie. There are reasons to smile, laugh, gasp and shake your head, all to the intentions of the creators. The music of Wang Feng is another almost invisible touch and accompaniment, no more than two musical weapons of choice to associate with the actions and emotions turned to in the evolutionary life changing situations of both Guo and Jian. As the former grafts to keep the job and the bicycle it is a forced double bass and cello that depicts the tired legs on the pedals. A lone piano trickles along to the romance of Jian and Xiao. Drums, no more, back up the chase and the oblivion of the sad close is again stops at two instruments but, paradoxically so, at a jarring yet subtle level, a mix of wind and string, flute and, possibly, viola, or violin, depicting the results as it does on two very different personalities still separate in their responses in the moment of calamity. The consideration at every level is worthy of praise and it has indeed collected deserving attention on the international festival circuit, including Best New Talent Awards for both the young leads at the Berlin International Film Festival 2001. There is much more to Beijing Bicycle side-tales and many wonderfully drawn characters, the limits of each characterisation never betrayed even if the circumstances depicted ought to suggest otherwise. When the two leads become the quarry, meeting repeatedly, subjects of a hunt in the obfuscating back streets of the poor quarter, there is a killer response when the springing Jian asks the madly cycling Guo why he is still with him when he would appear in line for an undeserved beating: "Are you stupid or what?" he warns. Comes the response:
   "I don't know my way out!" For a director to follow that immediately with the darkest of episodes Wang Xiaosbuai is without doubt a bold, cold, startling talent that should lead to greater future regard.
   DVD extras: star and director filmographies, world cinema trailers, film notes by Nick Bradshaw.
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