Beijing Bicycle

  • Lin Cui
  • Xun Zhou
  • Yuanyuan Gao


Directed by Xiaoshuai Wang

Sorry, y'all. I couldn't find any pictures of this one, and besides, who am I going to make fun of?

Change Lanes and Skip Blockbuster For Your Local Indie Video Store

JimmyO was right in his review of Changing Lanes: Sometimes film critics baffle me, and not just Roeper. A lot of critics gave that movie four stars, and neither of us can understand why. I lumped it with John Q as a new brand of angry Hollywood liberalism, but a lot of critics declared it a "nuanced character study" or a "morally ambiguous thriller." Me, I must have missed all the "nuance" and "ambiguity." To me, the plot and dialogue of Changing Lanes was so far overblown and altogether crazy that I can't grant it points for character subtlety. First, I'm a little baffled as to why I was ever supposed to shift my allegiance to Ben Affleck—a wealthy, adulterous, conniving Wall Street lawyer—to ruin this poor guy's life. Yet, I really didn't care for Sam Jackson either, with his overly earnest Tiger Woods speeches and whatnot. This movie proposes to scrape away the excess of modern life and artificial boundaries of class to reveal the innate greed of selfishness of mankind. But how can a movie bore into the marrow of humanity when it dresses itself up with overblown action sequences and Sam Jackson tossing a computer through a street window when he doesn't get a loan? How am I supposed to contemplate all this supposed "moral complexity" when Sam Jackson is screaming about "computer voodoo" or Tiger Woods commercials as a microcosm for race relations in America? How am I supposed to come to my own conclusion that man needs to be redeemed from his own nature when: 1) I get bonked on the head with Good Friday symbolism, 2) Ben chews out a priest at confessional and storms out of the church, 3) Ben and Sam both thrust out their arms in crucifixion poses looking skyward during a downpour, 4) Ben stumbles into confessional right in front of a processional carrying a gigantic crucifix. Changing Lanes doesn't even have the good manners to explain what "computer voodoo" is, or how one might overcome an "addiction to chaos," and I've yet to figure out why Ben didn't just let his company's insurance handle the accident claim, why he didn't realize he was being used as a pawn to launder money, what crime Sam is being charged with when he's arrested and given the beat down when he tries to visit his kids at school, or how Sam pulled off that spider wrench stunt without getting Ben killed. In short, the sheer preposterousness of the plot overrides any morality play that may lie within.

If you want a good movie that more clearly elucidates the same themes, then get your ass over to your local independent video store (like Showcase Movies in Springfield, Missouri) and ask for Beijing Bicycle. Of course it borrows from The Bicycle Thief, one of those undisputed "great movies" whose legend lives a separate life from the movie itself. That movie is the landmark of Italian neo-realism: Director Vittorio De Sica visited brothels and psychics as research, and his actors are "real people" entrenched in poverty. It's easy to classify The Bicycle Thief as a simple Marxist tale in which the small struggles of a man (like losing his bicycle) are such calamities that we personally, as the privileged moviegoing audience, would happily pass the hat around the theater for Ricci's bicycle fund. It's the sort of movie in which wealth is defined by an overwhelming plate of pasta, and if there's a tinge of insincerity in the film, it's that De Sica may seem to revel in the squalor a bit much, a little too self-satisfied that he's telling a poignant story. For those offended by Chaplin's or Spielberg's strategy of arousing guilt and then uplifting the sanctity of the moral man, The Bicycle Thief may seem a bit parable-istic, but as a work of art, it's tough to question De Sica's urban photography. There is something transcendent in the image of a person on a bicycle, putting distance between himself and society, soaring past all the troubles of the world.

Beijing Bicycle begins with a De Sica-ian template: A poor boy, Guei, moves to the city; the only job he can find is as a messenger boy on a bicycle. The company loans the boys some rather expensive bicycles, on the condition that they must pay for them with deliveries. Of course, on his final delivery, his bicycle is stolen as he's made to wait at a massage parlor, like the brothel Ricci runs into. The thief, Jian, is a more middle-class boy who goes to a nice school but whose family has come upon hard times. Guei, much to the surprise of his boss, actually finds the bicycle and takes it back. Rather than face the humiliation of admitting his family can't afford a bicycle, Jian assembles his gang who torments Guei. Guei desperately clings to his only hope in life; Jian faces the worst humiliation a privileged teen could possibly feel—being thought unworthy of the group.

The rest of the movie is the parallel stories of the boys, each scene defining what the bicycle means to them. For Guei, the bicycle represents freedom and the working man's satisfaction of keeping what you earn, but for Jian, he needs the bicycle as a status symbol, and to flirt with a girl he likes. I doubt that our allegiances are ever to shift from Guei, of course, but Jian's story is compelling in that we, as the privileged moviegoing audience, have probably faced fears nearer to Jian's as we have Guei's, though Guei's is clearly the more sympathetic. The story goes back and forth like this, developing a richness beyond simple Marxist parable, and for those offput by upbeat endings, this may be your movie.

Beijing Bicycle is so well-written and photographed that there's no need for Tiger Woods speeches or computer voodoo; neither Guei or Jian are addicted to chaos; nobody bicycles into a big crucifix. It might be easy to read Beijing Bicycle as a quiet cry for more evenly distributed wealth, but there's more going on than just that. The story of the two kids is simple—the smallest, yet universal events of childhood are expressed with the same heartwrench we remember. We really do get a sense of stripped humanity when poor Guei gets beat down by Jian's posse, seen in the way he desperately clings to his beloved bicycle. What child in any country can't identify with that? Or when Jian, engrossed in a video game, ignores his girlfriend. Is it arrogance, indifference, or out of a deeply rooted fear of actually talking to her? Whatever the case, what boy can't identify with that, and what girl hasn't been on the recieving end? Of course Beijing Bicycle is a beautiful movie: The images of hundreds of bicyclers on the streets of Beijing are like schools of salmon swimming upstream, and it captures the sublime poetry of the exhilaration of passing the world by on a bicycle, and what it's like to admire the craftsmanship of a well-made vehicle. In these moments, the Chinese subtitles dissolve from the screen and, like The Bicycle Thief, the power of simple, beautifully filmed images bridge oceans. I'm not sure the same can be said for Ben Affleck's confessional or Sam Jackson's spider wrench stunt. Both Changing Lanes and Beijing Bicycle explore erosion of humanity in the face of greed and revenge, but if beauty is a measure of storytelling and subtlety a measure of moral complexity, then do yourself a favor and skip Changing Lanes for Beijing Bicycle.

The Pitch:
2 The Bicycle Thief
1 Changing Lanes
3 Beijing Bicycle
See It For:
Just see it, for God's sake. Support your local independent video store, like Showcase Movies in Springfield, Missouri.