Over the last half-century, countless filmmakers great and obscure have stood in serious debt to The Bicycle Thief. But for my money, no one has borrowed so cleverly or shifted the weight of Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece so gracefully as young Wang Xiaoshuai, whose Beijing Bicycle embodies the spirit and mission of China's brash new crop of urban directors. In semesters to come, scores of earnest graduate students will probably write agonized dissertations comparing two-wheeled Italian neorealism and its latter-day Chinese variant, and we can look forward to every word with heated anticipation. For now, here are a couple of shots from the hip.
Beijing Bicycle seems both an homage to De Sica and a reinterpretation of his ideas for a vastly different society facing an even more critical moment of change. Like the original, it was shot on the mean streets. Its actors, too, look as plain as dirt. And it features a protagonist whose survival depends on a bicycle that comes to be stolen. Like De Sica in the bomb-scarred alleyways of post-war Rome, Wang has an unerring feel for the strivings of the poor and grasps the unfeeling establishment's contempt for them. In the end, Wang's beleaguered bicycle messenger, a country boy bewildered by the city, comes to a grief no less profound than that of De Sica's humiliated, jobless father. When poor Guei (Cui Lin) throws himself onto the crumpled wreck of his beloved bicycle, it suggests a devastated parent embracing his dead child -- and the remnant of his dream.
Of course, Beijing today is not Rome in 1948, despite a similar profusion of bicycles and a like atmosphere of ferment. While using The Bicycle Thief as an inspiration and an armature, Wang is naturally obsessed with the radical changes buffeting contemporary Chinese life -- the huge nation's uneasy, distinctly anti-Maoist drift into free-market economics; the migration of millions of workers from country to city; the dangerous no-man's-land between new personal freedoms and old communist repressions. He also casts his eye on the explosion of new wealth and new urges for status in a supposedly classless society. He scarcely mentions these things (although they are evident), partly because he cannot presume to do it. Two of his previous films were banned by the Chinese censors, and like every free thinker trying to make art in a totalitarian backwash, Wang takes frequent refuge in allusion and metaphor. Make no mistake: A bicycle is never just a bicycle in this teeming Beijing, and no desire is merely individual. We find ourselves always peering beneath the ostensibly simple surface of a canny filmmaker's narrative.
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Actually, that surface gives us not one striving boy, but two, each with his own veiled purpose. Guei, the bicycle messenger recently arrived from the provinces, hopes to earn enough to buy his bike from the company that hired him and make a life for himself. Meanwhile, his frantic delivery schedule lofts him into a world of wonders, as mysterious revolving doors lead into polished glass-and-steel towers concealing posh health clubs and paneled business offices. We can see awe and hunger creeping into Guei's plain face; we can feel the ambiguity with which Wang regards both. The second boy, a student called Jian (Li Bin), also covets a bicycle. But for him it's less a survival tool than the means to a social life. Like any American teenager with his eye on a Corvette, Jian needs wheels -- if only two of them -- to woo a girl, Qin (Zhou Xun), and his financially strapped father won't (or can't) cooperate, despite many promises. When Guei's company-owned bike falls into Jian's eager hands, something has to give. Enter the film's most elaborate and heartrending metaphor of all, one that plays off China's new acquisitiveness against the old, stated ideal of proletarian cooperation -- to disastrous result.
Along the way, the keen observer behind all of this artifice reveals the tones and textures of Chinese city life in the kind of incandescent detail previous Chinese exports couldn't dream of. As if to underscore the point, Wang at least twice makes jokes at the expense of Zhang Yimou, whose more rustic, historically based films (notably Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju) captivated worldwide audiences in the 1990s. For viewers who don't know Mandarin, it's impossible to gauge whether Wang's jokes are affectionate or sneering, but there's no missing them in the subtitles. In any event, as the vision of societal upheaval has been transported from the streets of Rome to the streets of Beijing, so, too, has the cinematic torch passed from Zhang to Wang -- at least in the upstart's bold view. One thing is sure: The complex, politically charged tapestry of contemporary Chinese life this exciting new filmmaker has brought to the screen is like nothing we Westerners have seen before.