×

Beijing Bicycle

A well-honed and often diverting Chinese riff on "The Bicycle Thief," indie mainland director Wang Xiaoshuai's "Beijing Bicycle" overplays its slim hand by a good two reels. A surprise winner of the Berlin Film Fest's Grand Jury Prize plus new talent awards for its two teen leads -- pic looks likely to create only minor waves on the arthouse circuit.

With:
Guo Liangui - Cui Lin Jian - Li Bin Qin - Zhou Xun Xiao - Gao Yuanyuan Da Huan - Li Shuang Father - Zhao Yiwei Mother - Pang Yan Rongrong - Zhou Fangfei Qiu Sheng - Li Mengnan

A well-honed and often diverting Chinese riff on “The Bicycle Thief,” indie mainland director Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Beijing Bicycle” overplays its slim hand by a good two reels. A surprise pickup by Sony Pictures Classics just prior to its screening in competition at Berlin — and an even more surprise winner of the fest’s Grand Jury Prize plus new talent awards for its two teenage leads — pic looks likely to create only minor waves on the arthouse circuit as a low-end, well-intentioned addition to Sony’s East Asian catalog.

Along with Taiwanese helmer Lin Cheng-sheng’s equally slim “Betelnut Beauty” (also double-prized at Berlin), the film is the first of six features co-produced by Taiwan’s Arc Light Films and France’s Pyramide Prods., in a series dubbed “Tales of Three Cities.” Still to come are pics by Beijing’s Jia Zhangke, Hong Kong’s Nelson Yu and Yee Chih-yen and Taipei’s Hsu Hsiao-ming.

Film takes only the basic premise of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neo-realist classic — a bicycle as the vital component of one’s livelihood, which is then stolen –and initially relocates the idea in a convincing way in modern Beijing. Guo Liangui (Cui Lin) is one of a group of kids from the sticks who sign on at a messenger company, are told to memorize the huge capital’s street plan, and receive smart new mountain bikes to do their job. The company’s boss aptly calls them “modern rickshaw boys”: They’re paid 10 yuan ($1.25) a trip and are allowed to purchase the bike when they’ve earned 600 yuan.

An early assignment almost turns to disaster when Gui is told to pick up a package from a “Mr. Zhang” at a bathhouse and ends up almost charged for using the premises’ facilities when he approaches the wrong person (Zhang being an even more common surname than “Smith” in the West). Episode sets the lightly comic tone in which the movie observes modern big-city life from a hick’s point of view, as Gui sullenly accepts multiple humiliations from snooty Beijingers for fear of losing his job.

When his bike is stolen just when he’s about to buy it, Gui’s boss tells him he can stay on only if he finds it. Faced with the almost impossible task in a city where bikes are still a popular mode of transport, Gui finally tracks its ownership to a high-school kid, Jian (Li Bin), who claims he bought it second-hand in a flea market. Peasant doggedness meets big-city arrogance in a battle of wills as Gui first retrieves the bike and then is set upon by Jian and his pals.

Crisply shot in the back streets, thoroughfares and untouristy nabes of sprawling Beijing, the film adopts an increasingly free and relaxed approach to its structure, pedaling down a few dead-end alley ways of its own. Gui and his friend Qiu (Li Mengnan) spy on a mysterious, beautiful young woman (popular Zhou Xun, from “The Emperor and the Assassin” and “Suzhou River”) like teenagers in heat; Jian is quietly dumped by his g.f. (Gao Yuanyuan) in favor a flashier guy (Li Shuang). Both strands are treated anecdotally rather than being properly integrated into the main story or developed at any length.

In these episodes, and in the self-conscious use of occasional off-screen action and sound, there’s a curiously Taiwanese flavor and rhythm to the mainland-set movie that is new to the director’s work so far (the realist “The Days” and “Frozen,” plus realist-poetic “So Close to Paradise”). How much this new sensibility may derive from having Taiwanese in key technical and creative posts is a matter of conjecture.

As the two protagonists, both Cui and Li are well cast and handle their dialogue-light roles with conviction, though these are hardly explosive perfs deserving of “new talent” accolades. The women are essentially pretty ciphers; supporting roles by older players (Gui’s hard-nosed boss, Jian’s parents) are drawn in rapid, believable strokes.

Post-produced in Taiwan and Thailand, pic is first-rate at all tech levels. And at 90 rather than 113 minutes, its dramatic slimness would be considerably more acceptable. Original title literally means “A Seventeen-Year-Old’s Bike.”

Popular on Variety

Beijing Bicycle

Taiwan - France

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics release (in the U.S.) of an Arc Light Films presentation of an Arc Light (Taiwan)/Pyramide Prods. (France) production, in association with Public Television Service Foundation, Eastern Television, Asiatic Films, Beijing Film Studio. (International sales: Flach Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Peggy Chiao, Hsu Hsiao-ming, Han Sanping. Co-producers, Michael Chiao, Shi Dong-ming. Executive in charge of production, Hsu Bing-hsi. Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai. Screenplay, Wang, Tang Danian, Peggy Chiao, Hsu Hsiao-ming.

Crew: Camera (Fujicolor), Liu Jie; supervising editor, Liao Ching-song; editors, Yang Hong-yu, Hsiao Ju-kuan; music, Wang Feng; art directors, Tsai Chao-yi, Cao Anjun; sound (Dolby SR), Chen Chen; sound designer, Tu Duu-chih; associate producer, Fabienne Vonier; coordinating producers, Eric Lagesse, Anne Devauchelle, Zhang Xia; assistant director, Niu Le, Yu Weijie. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 17, 2001. Running time: 113 MIN.

With: Guo Liangui - Cui Lin Jian - Li Bin Qin - Zhou Xun Xiao - Gao Yuanyuan Da Huan - Li Shuang Father - Zhao Yiwei Mother - Pang Yan Rongrong - Zhou Fangfei Qiu Sheng - Li MengnanWith: Xie Jian, Ma Yuhong, Liu Lei, Li Jian.
(Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Beyonce Knowles'The Lion King' film premiere,

    ABC Announces Behind-the-Scenes Special for Beyoncé's 'Lion King' LP

    ABC has announced a new behind-the-scenes look into the making of Beyoncé’s “The Lion King: The Gift” LP, which is set to air September 16 on ABC at 10 p.m. EST. Titled “Beyoncé Presents: Making the Gift,” the new hour-long special will allow viewers to “experience the process” behind the “Lion King” companion album, according [...]

  • Jason Lei Howden, Samara Weaving and

    Daniel Radcliffe On Acting With Weapons Nailed To Your Hands

    How did “Guns Akimbo” director and writer Jason Lei Howden convince Daniel Radcliffe to play a character with guns nailed to his hands? Easy, he sent him the script. Radcliffe joined Howden and “Ready or Not’s” breakout star Samara Weaving in the Variety’s Toronto Film Festival studio, presented by AT&T to talk the limits of [...]

  • Box Office: It Chapter Two Maintains

    Box Office: 'It: Chapter Two' Continues International Reign With $47 Million

    Pennywise’s reign of terror hasn’t wavered: Warner Bros.’ “It Chapter Two” maintained first place on box office charts, led by another strong showing overseas. The sequel, based on Stephen King’s horror novel, generated another $47 million at the international box office for a foreign tally of $169 million. After two weeks of release, “It Chapter [...]

  • First still from the set of

    Taika Waititi’s 'Jojo Rabbit' Wins Top Prize at Toronto Film Festival Awards

    Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” has won the coveted People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The honor positions the film for a potential Oscar run and bolsters its awards chances. That’s good news for Fox Searchlight, which must have been disappointed by the lackluster critical reception for the movie, a dark comedy [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Racks Up Solid $33 Million Debut, 'Goldfinch' Bombs

    “Hustlers” rolled in the Benjamins this weekend, collecting $33.2 million when it debuted in 3,250 North American theaters. Boosted by rave reviews and stellar word of mouth, “Hustlers” beat expectations and now ranks as the best start for an STX film, along with the biggest live-action opening weekend for stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. [...]

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content