If you know your Film History 101, this premise will seem familiar: A character requires a bicycle for his job. The bicycle is stolen, leaving the character in a desperate situation. And through his quest to retrieve the stolen bike, we learn a lot about the society in which he lives.
In 1947’s The Bicycle Thief, Vittorio De Sica created a classic of world cinema, one that launched a thousand film school deconstructions of Italian “neorealism” with a simple, haunting story about a father and son in post-war Rome. It’s also one of those sacrosanct film tales that it’s understood you just don’t mess with. It would be like re-making Casablanca as a 1970s TV movie starring David Soul—OK, bad example.
Beijing Bicycle may be director Wang Xiaoshuai’s languid hommage to The Bicycle Thief, but it’s no base rip-off. Launching from the same basic premise, Wang explores a modern China stumbling into the age of capitalism through a ferocious battle over one symbol of opportunity.
That symbol is the bicycle first in the possession of Guei (Cui Lin), a country boy newly arrived in the big city of Beijing. After landing a job as a courier, Guei also lands the opportunity to own the bike provided by his employer after initial deductions from his salary. But no sooner does Guei earn the bike outright than it disappears from where he had left it one afternoon. It turns up in the possession of schoolboy Jian (Li Bin), who desperately wants to join his schoolmates in after-school biking. When Guei eventually discovers the whereabouts of his bicycle, an all-out war develops between the two would-be owners over who will eventually keep it.
It’s not entirely a fair fight for the audience’s sympathy between the migrant laborer and the petulant middle-class kid, but Wang keeps viewers just off-balance enough to make the skirmish intriguing. In one scene, Wang shows Jian cruising happily on the bicycle after an afternoon with a potential girlfriend, whimsical music stirring us to feel happy for him—until we’re immediately reminded that he has to hide the bike because of the manner in which he acquired it. Later, Guei’s dogged determination to retrieve the bike becomes almost absurd, a desperate attempt to regain the access to the upscale world granted by his job.
Beijing Bicycle evolves into an exploration of a savvier, more consumer-aware China, and the accompanying complications. Wang drops in references by characters to Chinese director Zhang Yimou and his film The Story of Qiu Ju, highlighting a country more in tune with the popular culture. A woman (Xun Zhou) assumed by Guei to be a wealthy neighbor, turns out to be a maid fond of trying on her employer’s fancy clothing. Unlike its counterpart in The Bicycle Thief, the vehicle in Beijing Bicycle becomes less an icon of fundamental pride than an object of desire for people who always want more.
That message may not be an easy sell in America, and it will prove even harder to sell with Wang’s remote brand of cinematic storytelling. Very little in Beijing Bicycle leaps off the screen visually, as the director generally seems content to sit back and observe his characters with a determined naturalism. But even that detachment sometimes feels too studied, as when Wang holds the camera at a distance during a scene in which Guei is beaten by Jian and his schoolmates. At such moments, Beijing Bicycle feels too much like a cool academic essay on the perils of materialism, one that would prefer to deliver a message without getting too much dirt on its hands in the process.
Eventually, Wang does get down and dirty in a climactic chase sequence through Beijing’s back alleys. It’s more kinetic than anything that has gone before, giving the ideas that had been swirling around in the film a welcome grit. Nothing that happens in Beijing Bicycle feels as tragically human as the events in De Sica’s film, but that may have been asking too much. It’s enough that it takes us on a ride through a world that reminds us what happens when contemporary society turns luxuries into necessities. For movie buffs, that’s probably sufficient justification for a little bicycle thievery.