Wheels of Change

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Review of 'Beijing Bicycle', director Wang Xiaoshuai

It is always refreshing to see a film from a part of the world whose traditional culture is so different from that of the west. But Chinese tradition is being pressed hard by the lure of modern western values and desires, introduced by the country's rapid economic growth and integration into world markets. This growth necessitated a massive influx from country to town during the last two decades--about 100 million people. This, and the speed with which change is happening, has of course led to huge tensions among the city people--between rural and urban lifestyles, modern and traditional values--inevitably leading to a clash between old and young, and over other aspects of China's transition. This is the background to the film 'Beijing Bicycle', and it is sensitively and dramatically dealt with through the rather simple story.

Like 'Bicycle Thieves', the epoch-making Italian film that opened up a new era of realistic film making in the west after the Second World War, this film takes the bicycle--the symbol, indeed the icon, of Beijing and China--as the framework round which to build the story of a newly arrived rural migrant, Guei, who succeeds in getting a job with a delivery service for ten yuan per trip. Guei is provided with a silver mountain bike which he can buy for 600 yuan in instalments. Just when he has almost finished paying for it, the bike is stolen. The distraught youth runs all over Beijing to find it, and eventually spots a city youth riding it. Jian, the new owner, claims to have bought the bike at the flea market. But Guei needs his bike back, and the film follows his efforts.

Guei's delivery job takes him to luxury hotels and houses, rich men's leisure centres and other glamorous places, all of which, including the city itself with its tall new buildings, fills him with wonder. It also brings him bang up against the prejudices and meanness of the growing market economy, which ridicules and exploits 'country bumpkins' like Guei.

Looking for the addressee of a parcel, a hotel gym official insists he cannot go into the gym to find his customer without showering first. While he does so his clothes are taken away, and he has to go naked into the reception area to get them back. His customer, a man with a common Chinese name, is not there, but Guei is not allowed to leave the gym without paying for the shower he was forced to have. He protests, and in any case he has no money, so is seized by security officers who maul him about until, by good fortune, the correct addressee with the same name turns up.

Jian, the city youth found riding Guei's bike, has been promised his own bike--the height of a Chinese youngster's ambition--by his father, who year after year breaks his promise to pay for 'more important things'. Jian steals his father's savings to buy the bike but denies the theft. All hell is let loose, and the rift in attitude between the parents' generation and Jian's is given full vent.

The bike also plays an important part in the boys' first love affairs, which in the end in fact resolve the issue of its possession. There are many other small subplots giving an insight into Beijing culture and traditions, and their manifestations in its transformation.

The photography of the film is superb. Scenes of a chase through the alleyways of the old town give a profound sense of the traditional community life being speedily transformed as the tall new buildings are erected. The acting is also excellent.

The film occasionally appears to be somewhat simplistic in its efforts to show contradictions implicit in Beijing's rapid transformation, but this is a minor drawback. The director has put a fine, thoughtful film together, which deserves the acclaim it received for film and acting at the Berlin Film Festival last year.