February 18th, 2007
Like The Bicycle Thief, this is a film in which a bicycle represents the way out of poverty. Young Guei arrives in Beijing from the Chinese countryside and gets a job as a bike courier. Such a bumpkin is he that he can’t stop staring at the streets, the people, the lights, and the buildings. Mesmerized by a revolving door, he goes around in it twice.
The delivery company supplies the bike and takes the cost out of his wages until it is paid for, but just as Guei finishes paying for the bike, it is stolen. Like Ricci in The Bicycle Thief, Guei sees the bicycle as his only hope for survival, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to get it back.
Unlike The Bicycle Thief, this film spends as much time with the thief as with the victim. The stolen bike has been bought by Jian, a sullen student who hangs around with a gang of bike enthusiasts. They spend their time doing stationary riding tricks in an unfinished apartment building. (Like Guei in the revolving door, for all their exertions they are not going anywhere.)
Jian’s need for the bike is not as elemental as Guei’s, but as the film lingers with him and his gang we come to empathize with him almost as much as we do with Guei. Jian feels a real sense of grievance about the poverty of his family and what he sees as the unfair favouritism his father shows for his step-sister. For Jian the bike represents social acceptance by his bike-riding friends, independence from his father, and even romance with a pretty bike-riding neighbourhood girl.
Jian in love
Guei finds his bike and steals it back, for awhile, but he is no match for Jian and his gang. In a parody of capitalist negotiations, the gang members insist that because Jian actually paid the thief for the stolen bike, Guei will have to pay him for it, in full, if he wants it back. Guei has no money and refuses to pay for his own bike anyway. He fights back by crying and clinging to the bike. Eventually a strange arrangement is made, and a grudging friendship forms between Guei and Jian.
Class differences are everywhere in Beijing Bicycle. Guei and his shopkeeper friend can only gaze in amazement at the pretty young woman in the window of a nearby apartment building, who seems so rich that she has nothing better to do than change her clothes every ten minutes. But why does such a goddess come to his friend’s shop to buy soy sauce, wearing her red high-heeled shoes? There is a mystery here.
I like this movie, partly for the parallels with The Bicycle Thief and partly for the slice of modern life in Beijing. There is pathos in the plight of the unfortunate Guei, who tries to do his deliveries on foot, running pell-mell through the streets of the city. It is not a great classic like The Bicycle Thief, and it is marred by some repetitive scenes of haggling and fighting over the bike, but I recommend it highly.