Three cab drivers of assorted ages and genders provide unique perspectives on the profound changes wrought by preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games in “Beijing Taxi.” Tracking each cabbie from 2006 to the onset of the Games, Miao Wang’s imagistic docu intercuts among her three subjects in freeform fashion, in the process revealing contrasting facets of a culture in full capitalistic metamorphosis. “Taxi” bowed Dec. 10 at Gotham’s ReRun Gastropub Theater, but roiling global economies may make this engrossing docu appear already outdated.
Throughout, the drivers are framed against the various cityscapes they traverse, though their philosophical views on what is unfolding around them differs with age and temperament.
Six years away from retirement at age 54, Bai Jiwen represents a generation largely left behind in an increasingly unfamiliar society. He received little education during the Cultural Revolution; he suffers from health problems, and when his license is suspended for lack of fluency in English, his insurance also lapses. But surviving decades of radically shifting Chinese domestic policy has given him the flexibility to ride out the Olympic storm.
Wei Caixia, in her mid-30s, finds herself discontentedly straddling the fence between old values and new. Unable to tolerate the restraints of a 9-to-5 job, she has already tried other professions, including a short stint as a teacher; she opens a small clothing stall, only to discover that, impatient and outspoken, she cannot cater to customers. Her only true commitment is to her 6-year-old daughter, with whom she spends all her spare time, the camera chronicling their perambulations around the Great Wall.
Chubby, genial Zhou Li experiences none of his colleagues’ professional pressures. Still young (in his early 30s) and relatively skilled (he drives a variety of vehicles), he can easily get by and feels neither his elders’ confusion nor his peers’ impatient ambition, adhering to an easygoing Beijing tradition that prizes appreciation over appropriation.
Indeed, all three admit to reservations about the new China, questioning the elevation of competition over cooperation, and regretting the wholesale razing of old neighborhoods. Gifted lensers Ian Vollmer and Sean Price Williams prowl the bulldozed rubble and visit rare quiet enclaves of old Beijing.
Though inconvenienced by the Games and dubious about the wisdom of spending tremendous time, effort and resources on fabricating a spiffy image for the West, the cabbies are not immune to the lure of the Olympics. Their trips to the site allow Wang to latch on to a multilingual tour of a meticulously crafted city in miniature, gaze upon the Bird’s Nest stadium alongside Wei’s enraptured daughter or marvel with Zhou at the excellent Mandarin spoken by a visiting African-American fare.