Beijing Bicycle

Xiaoshuai Wang’s Beijing Bicycle recalls in certain ways VIttorio De Sica’s neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief; but Wang’s film leaves behind the humanist pieties of the Italian film, painting a harsher picture of poverty and wealth in post-Communist China…

Guei (Cui Lin) is a young bicycle messenger, fresh from the country and newly arrived in Beijing. His bicycle is stolen, and with it, his hopes of advancement in the city. Jian (Li Bin) is a student; he buys the bicycle on the black market, wanting it to impress girls and to keep up with his male classmates. The film follows both young men, as the bicycle passes back and forth between them, and as their fates get more and more intertwined, with bitter consequences. In some ways, Beijing Bicycle does refer back to the legacy of neorealism: its plot is subordinated to the rhythms of everyday life, and it casts an unflinching eye on the class divisions of the new China (as well as on the enormous gap between city and country). But affectively, this is a very different sort of film. Presented mostly in long shots, with great emphasis on bodily gestures and a minimum of dialogue, the film makes identification with any of the characters difficult, but condemnation of any of them even more so. Guei is mostly stoic and silent, a peasant lost in the vastness of the city, who never feels at home there, and whom the city people condescendingly regard as “stubborn.” Jian, the would-be urban sophisticate, is an asshole, but he’s very young, and he also has his reasons.

The film doesn’t offer any positive resolution, or any false hopes, but (despite the violence that lurks offscreen for most of the film, and breaks out on camera near the end) it has a tenderness–and a sense of social possibility, in spite of everything–that prevents it from being as grim as, say, Bunuel’s Los Olvidados or Hector Babenco’s Pixote. Wang dwells as much on the confusions of adolescence as he does on the injustices of class; he shows us passions that are deeply personal, and ultimately untractable, even if their shapes have a lot to do with money and social status class background.

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