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.”