Stealing Bikes and Movies
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Buy Beijing Bicycle on DVD
Vittorio DeSica's The Bicycle Thief (1949) is a great film, but it's pretty Film School 101. Most filmmakers and film buffs have seen it and acknowledge its contribution to world cinema. In other words, it's not that interesting when a filmmaker like Wang Xiaoshuai pays tribute to (read: copies) it in a film like the new Beijing Bicycle.
For one thing, The Bicycle Thief was the centerpiece of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, created specifically as a retaliation against the stagnant mainstream of the time. Beijing Bicycle doesn't really retaliate against anything. Instead, it collects bits and pieces from the most honored and Miramaxed films (i.e., lightweight cream puffs with delusions of grandeur) of today in a blatant attempt to garner some respect of its own. It's cloying rather than angry.
As the film begins, Guei (Cui Lin) arrives in Beijing from the country and lands a much-coveted job as a bicycle delivery boy. He works for a while for 20 percent of his delivery profits until he earns enough to buy his fancy new bike from the company. After that, he gets 50 percent of the take.
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that Guei's bike will be stolen -- and just one day before he's able to call it his own. This scene turns out to be more interesting than expected, though.
Trying to make a pickup from someone called Zhang, Guei is sent into the bowels of an expensive spa and asked to take a shower before he can see Zhang. But the rich and cranky Zhang doesn't know what Guei's talking about. "Try Zhang Yimou," he says, referring to the acclaimed director of Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home.
The counter girl tries to make Guei pay for his shower before everyone realizes that the manager, also named Zhang, has been waiting for his pickup. After all this fuss, Guei returns to his bike parked outside to find it gone.
The film jumps over to Jian (Li Bin) who now has the bike. We assume that he's the thief, but we later learn that he bought it used on the black market and that the real thief will never be known. Jian is a student forced to wear a suit to school. The bike is important to him for more superficial reasons: to keep up with his friends and to impress a pretty girl who lives down the street (Zhou Xun, from Suzhou River).
Eventually the two young men catch up to one another, and the bike changes hands at least three more times. And, true to Italian Neo-Realism, the film ends on a downer.
Director Wang shoots in wide, lengthy shots, similar to the Taiwanese filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, but without the beauty or grace -- these shots are more deliberate than organic. More to the point, Wang keeps things on a pace with Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven, another film that apes the Neo-Realism of The Bicycle Thief. As a result, Beijing Bicycle looks like the kind of film that's just begging for an Oscar.
That's where the irony sets in. It makes sense that Wang would want to disrupt the subdued, profound status of the older generation of Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige with something wild and dazzling like Lou Ye's Suzhou River. Instead, he's trying to copy them, like a young Hollywood filmmaker imitating Spielberg in the hopes of winning box office receipts and prestigious awards.
It's a pity, but we wind up with a meaningless morality film that seems most at home clattering away on an elementary school classroom projector than in art houses.