Here’s a modern and Chinese variation on De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, uncertain in tone but enlightening in what it shows us of contemporary Beijing. Its hero, Guei (Cui Lin), is a country boy who has arrived in the big city and gets the much-coveted job of bike messenger, delivering and picking up important parcels at various places of business. One of the terms of his job is that a certain part of his salary will go toward purchasing his bicycle in installments. Come that happy day, of course, Guei’s bicycle is stolen.
Threatened with dismissal, Guei is told that if he can find the bike, he’ll be able to keep his job. He does find it (in an unbelievable plot turn, since there must be a few hundred thousand bikes in the city), but its new owner, a young man named Jian (Lee Bin), claims to have purchased it legitimately. Jian needs the bike in order to keep social pace with his more well-off school chums and, not incidentally, impress his girlfriend. He has all the motivations for stealing the bike, but is as stubborn in his claim to having bought it as Guei is in his claim that it’s his. Jian, as it turns out, both is and isn’t a thief, but that’s more of the story than you need to know.
Beijing Bicycle shifts from drama to comedy to romance to flat-out wailing despair in a sometimes bewildering manner. It’s difficult to say whether director and co-scripter Wang Xiaoshuai intended this hodgepodge of moods or if he just didn’t have a firm grip on the material.
The film benefits greatly from Cui Lin’s performance as the stubborn and taciturn Guei, and there’s one impressive sequence which seems wholly improvised as a group of Jian’s friends spends a grueling daylong session trying to convince him to give up the bike, alternately bullying and bargaining and then finally falling silent with exasperation. It’s a loose and edgy set piece, consonant with the scenes of Guei’s yowling angst. But overall the impression is that Xiaoshuai doesn’t want to upset us too greatly, and the film suffers a little from this kindness.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].