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Shiqi sui de dan che (Beijing Bicycle)

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When Beijing Bicycle premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2001, it was banned in mainland China. It took three years and several modifications to lift the ban. It's not surprising that the movie was controversial. At first it sounds relatively benign – the story of a 17-year-old boy who comes to the big city and gets a job as a cycle courier. As the plot unravels, however, it gets darker.

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Gradually you realize it's about social conflict, between the city and the country, and between social classes. It's about moving up in the world. When the bike is stolen, it's bought by a local schoolboy, and the movie follows the pair through the backstreets of Beijing as they try to settle the issue of ownership once and for all.

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In the process we get to see the real city of Beijing – a maze of meandering alleys, traditional rooftops, neighborhood stores, skyscrapers and western-style mansions. It's a city that's in transition between old and new, traditional and contemporary.

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It's what the director Wang Xiaoshuai believes makes the city so interesting – the juxtaposition of sunbathing old men and go-getting young businessmen, the alleys and courtyards, the chaos.

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Filming in the alleys was, says Wang Xiaoshuai, logistically difficult because there are less and less of them. Chase scenes, which make up a good part of the movie, had to be filmed in multiple locations to avoid showing the same view again and again. He was, he says, 'torn between lamenting over their disappearance and knowing that people are entitled to better living conditions.'

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Then there's the bicycle itself. The iconic mode of transport in China. According to the director, 'When I was young having more than one bike was a sign of prosperity or resourcefulness. Before the open-door era, the measures of a family's success were the so-called “Big Four”: a watch, a sewing machine, a radio and a bicycle. Today the Big Four are no longer what they were.

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'Although the bike has lost much of its glory,' he adds, 'it remains an important mode of transportation because cars and motorcycles are still not commonplace. It has evolved fom being something everyone covets to something everyone still needs but wants to replace. It has gradually come to stand for a failure to move forward.'

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Looking at the street scenes, it's easy to see the relatively even ratio of cars to bicycles, but it's also easy to imagine how in five or ten years both boys might be aspiring to own cars, not bikes.

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The movie gets mixed reviews, but one thing is clear: it's a great way to see a Beijing that is in rapid flux. According to Ken Fox at TV Guide, 'Wang's film offers an interesting look at the rapidly changing face of Beijing.' Scott Tobias at The Onion agrees, 'Even without its bleak and affecting story, Beijing Bicycle would work beautifully as a travelogue alone.' – Roshan McArthur

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