Beijing Bicycle is so much more than its synopsis indicates. Almost from the first frame it is a visual love affair with the humble bike, and images that most Westerners have come to associate with the high population Asian cities – that of teeming, treadling travellers choking city streets – do not so much crowd as flow across the screen. There are whole scenes just of this, a graceful, abstracted ballet of hundreds, if not thousands, of bicycles and their riders, moving through the city en masse, making out of the commuting population a thing of peace and beauty and not, as might be expected, chaos and bustle.
And it is a film about the bicycle as a symbol with a place in society. For the characters that populate this film, it represents many things – independence, success, status, freedom. Viewing this film from the outside, we cannot immediately grasp it – the bicycle’s – significance. To draw parallels, it’s like owning your first car. It’s not just a means of getting from A to B more easily, it’s a rite and right of passage and to be denied it is to be left floundering without a place in the world.
For the main characters in Beijing Bicycle, this is not an overstatement. We are first introduced to the bicycle of this film – a state of the art, silver mountain bike with the works – through Guei (Cui Lin), a quiet, serious and not especially well-off boy from the country who lands a job at a city courier service. And like a test drive in a new car, Guei falls in love with the fancy new bike and the financial stability it affords. Though it seems to put him amongst the faceless crowds, hardly any different from anyone else around him, he seems to know better. He has a place in the city, a job and therefore meaning and the bicycle is the fulcrum in his new life.
When it’s stolen, that life starts to fall apart. Desperate, practically obsessed to get it back, he embarks on a fool’s quest in search of his Ten Speed, finally cornering it in the possession of a young high school boy, Jian (Li Bin).
For Jian also, the bike is special and a thing to be coveted. It’s status amongst his friends, who hang out in alleyways and unfinished buildings, pulling tricks and trying to impress each other with their balancing skills. It’s common ground with the girl he has a crush on and courage to rival for her affections when she turns away from him. It’s independence and freedom from his impoverished family. When Guei turns up and tries to take the bicycle from him, Jian is inclined to fight to keep it rather than give it up.
Much of the middle of the film then becomes a microcosm of the battlefield and guerilla tactics, and watching Jian team up with his school gang to reclaim the bike by almost any means necessary you can’t help but feel sorry for Guei. But Guei has will and stubbornness to match even five high school boys.
Director Writer Wang Xiaoshuai, considered one of the most talented new filmmakers in China, uses the seemingly personal symbol of the bicycle and the differences in its significance to the two main characters as a reflection of a greater concept, that of China’s clashing social values and class systems. Guei is a small town sort, taking the commitment to and ownership of his bicycle as a means of survival. But Jian, city born and bred, does not need it for survival in the more traditional sense of the word. His needs are rather status based; as he struggles with issues of identity and independence owning a bike provides him with everything he feels he lacks. For his family it is far less practical, and therefore much less a priority than his younger stepsister’s education, but for him it is almost his entire world, just as much, though in different ways, as it is for Guei.
So also this film is a clashing of the traditional with the contemporary, or two worlds trying to negotiate a way of living together. This is something reinforced throughout, in both Jian and Guei’s origins, in the cityscapes of old roofs and modern buildings, Western style mansions and quirky neighbourhood shops, narrow, forgotten alleys and traffic congested roads.
Against this backdrop, cinematographer Liu Jie, whose film credits list other past collaborations with Xiaoshuai, focuses with subtle care on the details and manages to create some poignant and visually touching moments. Tu Duu-Chih, the sound designer (and credited by the way as having worked on Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together and In The Mood For Love, two of my all time aurally favourite films) seems to find the perfect mood and pace for the film, preventing the story from becoming mired in its increasingly harsh social commentary. There are long silences, very Kitano-like in the way they dominate scenes, at other moments the only noise is the sound of the city in the background. The score is both rich and sweet describing a sense not of anxiety in an overwhelming urban environment but of peace within the system.
It is these strengths that carry the burden of larger social discourse and Guei and Jian who bring such issues down to a more personal level. As a symbol of negotiating identity, both on an individual and cultural level, the bicycle itself is then much less the plain, humble mode of transport it at first seems.
As the final film in the 2001 Silk Screen Festival, so too is Beijing Bicycle rather more than a few humble paragraphs of summary or analysis and while it is perhaps a finish to the festival, it is only a step in negotiating the relationships of modern life in an old city.