There are nine million bicycles in Beijing (going by the obviously very accurate source of a chart topping song) but there are 11.5 million inhabitants so that’s at least two million people who do not own a bike. Still, if you’re in the unlucky position of having your bike stolen by one of the aforementioned two million, your chances of finding it again are slim. Luckily for the protagonist of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车, Shí Qī Suì de Dānchē), he manages to track his down through sheer perseverance though even once he gets hold of it again his troubles are far from over.
A young guy from the country, Guei has lucked out with a good job at a bicycle courier company. Each of the new employees is given a new, high-tech bicycle which they will eventually own after working off the cost through a 20/80 salary split and once the bike is theirs they’ll be on an even better 50/50 pay rate. This is a dream job for Guei and he’s pretty good at it – he’s nearly paid for the bike in under a month. However, after being messed about by a hotel reception desk which keeps him hanging around longer than usual, he emerges to find his bike no longer waiting for him.
The vehicle turns up in the hands of another boy of a similar age but very different background. Jian is a lower middle-class boy at a posh school where most of his classmates are considerably better off than he is and it seems to get to him. Jian’s father has been promising to buy him a bicycle for years but something always comes up and now it’s that his little sister got into a better school so they need the money for her fees. Resentfully, Jian gets himself a bike to hang out with his posh friends through other means and generally continues to be a little shit about it.
Quite obviously inspired by De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Theives, Beijing Bicycle doesn’t quite have that movie’s harsh sentimentalism but goes about as far as Wang could take a similar message and still get around China’s frighteningly tight censorship regulations. Guei does everything right – well, almost everything, he gets so upset about losing his bike that he forgets to deliver his final package which is what gets him fired from the delivery firm (they didn’t really mind about the bicycle anyway). He offers to find the bike and bring it back and is promised a second chance if he can actually beat the odds and track it down but his boss doesn’t seriously expect to see him again. Guei needs the bike to live, he can’t work without it and this was about the best job he’s likely to get in the bustling metropolis of Beijing without qualifications or family connections.
On the other hand, it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathise with Jian and his petty squabbles with his very reasonable father and attempts to blend in with the equally awful group of thuggish rich boys from school. Of course, it’s all about a girl really – somehow he thinks she’d care about him having a bicycle (she wouldn’t) and luckily said girl is too sensible to hang out with someone who’d beat up some poor kid and take away his only way of supporting himself just because he could. Yes, he’s a young man and he’s angry so he’s doing stupid teenage boy stuff but he’s ruining lives in the process and desperately needs someone to explain to him about the world not being fair.
Guei eventually steals back his bike, only for Jian’s mates to beat him up and take it again. Guei doesn’t give up though and eventually the two end up sharing the bike even though Jian only uses it for swanning around and trying to impress a girl who isn’t interested in him. Needless to say it all ends quite badly. Jian gets Guei into even more trouble that he didn’t ask for and both boys end up losing out both ways. As in De Sica’s film, society turns us all into bicycle thieves whether we wanted to be or not. The boys are both chasing an unattainable dream but they’re doing it from very different places and though both are arguably at a disadvantage boys like Guei will always lose out to cowardly thugs with muscle like Jian.
Nicely filmed in a modern indie, neo-realist inspired style Beijing Bicycle does suffer a little with its lengthy running time especially as the tussle over the bicycle itself turns into a repetitious saga in which you just want someone to give Guei back his bicycle and have done with it. Nevertheless, having said that it actually does quite a lot with an economical script though Zhou Xun’s virtual walk on of a cameo as the glamorous neighbour feels a little underdeveloped even if it pays off in the second half of the film. A sadly realistic tale of a very unlucky boy who just wants to get on and works hard to get there only to come up against cowards and thugs with money Beijing Bicycle does what it can do to highlight the unfairness inherent in the post-communist world.
Beijing Bicycle was previously released by Tartan in the UK and is currently available to stream via Amazon. In the US it’s currently available on DVD through Sony Pictures Classic.
Watched via Mubi.