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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" has a superficial similarity to "The Bicycle Thief," a true classic, but it presents a darker and deeper story. Set in Beijing it tracks the efforts of a young man from the countryside to find his self-sufficient place in a bustling and rawly energetic city. For him, obtaining a position as a bicycle messenger for a company serving the commercial firms of the city seems to be a satisfactory end, not a beginning as it probably would be were this film set in a Western metropolis.
For a New Yorker, where bicycle messengers are simultaneously often hated and frequently and with good measure feared, the operation of the Beijing counterpart, with messengers uniformly attired and equipped with identical mountain bikes, is both strange and familiar.
Central to the film is the theft of the coveted bicycle one day before it would become the personal property of the messenger (the company's scheme allows employees to earn ownership after what appears to be a short period of service). The bike turns up in the hands of a post-high school youth, part of a loose gang of bicycle worshipers. Much of the story revolves around the subsequent relay race of seizures of the bike with attendant and escalating violence.
The intensity of the competition between two young men for the bike reflects its importance not only economically (bikes appear in huge numbers in wide shots of broad avenues and busy streets) but also personally. These young men probably don't even have nocturnal fantasies of car ownership.
A wary but real bond develops between the suitors for bike ownership and the violence that engulfs them is palpably real and painful to watch. There is no real resolution for either of them it seems.
"Beijing Bicycle" would have benefited from some judicious editing and the deletion of an extraneous secondary story line (or two) that detracts from the main tale. The score is very nice and the acting strong. This is not the Beijing of Tianamen Square or of the flourishing fast food outlets. It is, however, a Beijing that has a number of striking similarities to neighborhoods known to many of us. And in that lies the film's interest and attractiveness.
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