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Beijing: young men in packs, machismo, class divisions, violence, and indifference. Guei arrives from the country: toothbrushes, hotel foyers, and Qin, a rich neighbor in high heels, dazzle him. He gets a job as a messenger. The company issues him a bike, which he must pay for out of his wages. When it is stolen, Guei hunts for it. A student, Jian, has it; for him, it's the key to teen society - with his pals and with Xiao, a girl he fancies. Guei finds the bike and stubbornly tries to reclaim it in the face of great odds. But for Jian to lose the bike would mean humiliation. The two young men - and the people around them - are swept up in the youths' desperation. Written by
Beijing Bicycle by Sixth Generation director Wang Xiaoshuai is an unsettling look at modern China in transition that depicts the relationship between two young men of different social status, both yearning for acceptance and stubbornly determined to succeed. Guei (Cui Lin) is an unexpressive working class 17-year old who has come to Beijing to find work, while Jian (Li Bin), is a sophisticated middle-class student, desperate to belong, seeking approval from his biker friends and his beautiful girlfriend Gin (Zhao Yiwel). The film explores the consequences when Guei's bicycle is stolen and ends up in Jian's hands. The bicycle represents an escape for both from the competitive pressures of their lives. For Guei, it is a means of access to a job, an income, and survival. For Jian, it is the pathway to being "cool" and being in the in-group, much like what the flashy sports car represents to young men in Western countries.
As the film opens, a group of boys are being interviewed for a job as a courier. Enticed by the prospect of owning a silver mountain bike, Guei takes the job and begins to save money to buy the bike, given to him as a loan (the bike is his once he has earned 700 yuan, which is about $85). Out of his element in the bewildering city, Guei runs into an awkward situation almost immediately when he makes a delivery in a luxury hotel and is directed to the gym where he is forced to strip for a shower before he can deliver his package. He is then asked to pay for the shower when he leaves but does not have enough money. When his bike is stolen just one day before he can become the owner, Guei's job is threatened.
Xie Jian as Guei's manager is both abrasive and compassionate and offers to take Guei back to work if he can find his bike. In a city where bicycles are still the most common means of transportation, against all odds he sets out to find it. The film is about the bicycle but is also about the city of Beijing. Guei's search for the bicycle takes him into all corners of the city. With an original score by Felix Wang and magnificent cinematography by Jie Liu, the city comes alive with streets littered with traffic juxtaposed with mysterious alleys where old men play board games or do Tai Chi. Wang adds the little touches as well such as two friends sharing a toothbrush and a single spigot of water in an alley serving an entire neighborhood.
Like De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, the stolen bicycle is central to the story, but here it is not about the hunt but about the consequences that follow from its recovery. When the student Jian is found with the bike, both he and Guei assert ownership and the bike is stolen and reclaimed by both boys several times, each time ending in a scuffle with Jian's friends. In a powerful confrontation with his father, Jian, in a rage against his father for reneging on his promise to buy him a bike, finally admits to stealing his father's money to purchase the bike himself at the flea market after it was fenced. The two boys are pitted against each other but mutual need brings them together and allows them to work out a compromise by alternating the days when each can use the bike. Eventually a serious confrontation takes place that escalates into a startling conclusion.
Beijing Bicycle is a deeply human odyssey that, while somewhat repetitive, never loses its rhythm. Though there is little dialogue and the characters communicate mostly with body language, long silences, and facial expressions, the actors perform their roles with astonishing authenticity. Parts of the film are emotionally upsetting, but there is also a sweet innocence at play. Jian acts like a typical adolescent-surly, angry with his parents, shy with girls, audacious and impetuous one minute, and then needy and contrite the next. In one of the concluding scenes, as a group of punks chase two boys through a an older section of Beijing; one says to the other, "What are you doing? This doesn't concern you." The other replies, "I don't know my way out." In today's new China, caught between the traditions of an ancient culture and the new urban reality, young people are having trouble finding their way out.
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