A scene from 'Beijing Bicycle'
Courtesy Photo
** stars (In Chinese with English subtitles)
103 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, February 1, 2002
Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai

Starring Cui Lin, Li Bin, Zhou Xun, Gao Yuanyuahn, Li Shuang


I doubt this film will be able to hold your attention on the small screen unless you give it your undivided attention.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 07.09.2002

 LINKS for this film
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Frustrating import about a stolen bike would be half as long if its characters had half a brain

By Rob Blackwelder

Sometimes we film critics get so fed up with the dumbing down of American cinema that we forget that plots dependent on character stupidity are not a purely Hollywood phenomenon. But then along comes a movie like the promising but frustrating "Beijing Bicycle" to set us straight.

Showered with awards and accolades in Taiwan and at the Berlin Film Festival, the picture is an affecting social study in urban Chinese life, about two teenage boys in a tug-of-war over ownership of a shiny new mountain bike.

Guei (Cui Lin), an undemonstrative courier/messenger fresh from rural China, owns the bike -- or would, had it not been stolen with only one payment to go. His messenger company had supplied him with the bicycle on an installment plan. Jian (Li Bin), is a schoolboy whose cool-kid cache gets a boost after he buys the stolen bike at a flea market. Now he gets to ride with his better-off pals and has even landed a pretty girlfriend (Zhou Xun), thanks to his new status.

When Guei is subsequently fired from his job, he sets out on a desperate but stubborn quest to find his bicycle among millions of them in Beijing, and the film is off to a strong start. Director Wang Xiaoshuai establishes such a vivid atmosphere of congested streets and lower-caste lives that you can almost smell the city and feel its vitality. He inspires such engulfing performances from his two stars that when his wheels go missing, you feel just horrible for the dejected Guei. Later Wang stirs the same compassion for a sulking Jian, when by some miracle Guei does find the bike (which he'd marked to tell it apart from those owned by other messengers) and steals it back.

But "Beijing Bicycle" shoots itself in the foot when the two boys come face to face and the bike changes hands again. Jian figures out where Guei works (getting his transportation back also got him re-hired) and waits outside the messenger service with a pack of his friends. All Guei has to do is point inside to the row of identical delivery bikes to prove pretty conclusively that the bike in question was stolen. If Jian requires further evidence, Guei can ask his boss to come outside and clear things up.

But to do something that obvious and sensible would mean the movie would end after only 45 minutes. So instead Guei panics and takes off, with Jian and his buddies in hot pursuit. From this point on, tedium sets in as the story is dragged out far beyond its rational finale.

The fact that Jian isn't any brighter than his rival only makes the story harder to bear. He gets so moody and surly when he loses the bike that it's tempting to write him off as a schmuck for shunning his supportive friends and girlfriend so completely that she goes off with another boy.

The bike changes hands in creative ways on several subsequent occasions. But for the balance of the film, every sublime cinematic inspiration (beautiful, fluid shots of bicycles flowing like a river through Beijing streets) or resonant character moment (countrified Guei is wowed by fancy hotels, revolving doors and city girls) is countered with some irritating episode that requires the characters to display a total lack of common sense.

If the film's persistent "Why doesn't he just (fill in the blank)?" obtuseness weren't so obtrusive, "Beijing Bicycle" would have been a poignant, resourceful, terrific character-driven film. But that better version of the picture must have been one of the packages left undelivered when Guei lost his bike and couldn't finish his route.


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