Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 3, 2009

A Beijing Bicycle Built For Two

Some of my most “content-rich” travel experiences have actually come from novels I have read or films I have seen. And often I find that vicarious arm-chair travel can be as enlightening (and sometimes preferred) mode of travel as the “real thing.”  Having recently visited Beijing, the film which is the subject of the piece below now has even more resonance.

I have been rather remiss in saying, “Bravo Blockbuster!” The cause for my applause is a new marketing strategy introduced by the video chain but not discovered by me until I visited the store recently in search of some cinematic food for thought. And when I did, lo and behold, right up front was a whole new section called “Festival Flicks: Unique, Interesting Titles For the Movie Connaisseur!”

I am told the collection will be updated every month and that now that these specialty films are prominently displayed, all in one place and easier to find, they are “renting well.” It just goes to show that if you value it, they will watch it … and presumably will appreciate it. When I ask who the clientele is for these films I am told they are “all ages, both genders, and a good multicultural mix.”

What pleases me most about this product realignment is that, like travel which has become much more consumer-driven, there is now a clearly identified option to the predominant Hollywood movie with its star systems, predictable plot lines, and gratuitous sex and violence — what I am wont to call “flash and trash.”

Even more significant in my view is that this cinematic sigh in a shouting mob of blockbusters is a consumer choice that reflects the cosmopolitan personality of the urban environment in which I live, and opens a small window on the international cinematic worldview.

A quick visual inventory of the Festival Flicks reveals films I’m sure will appeal to viewers here: films that are sophisticated, subtle, ecumenical in outlook, diverse in their subject matter, and universal in their themes. As we all know, American media culture is elephantine in its impact, and the subculture of Hollywood even more so when it comes to film.

Now don’t get me wrong; there are lots of Hollywood films that I like, lots of American indie films as well, but despite globalization, in cultural terms we do not live in a one-size-fits-all world. Experiencing cultural visions beyond Hollywoodland enriches the cerebral diet, and travelling vicariously via film expands a person’s perspective on humanity.

And so, with a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at hand we watch Beijing Bicycle.

On the whole, the reviews of the film have been good to excellent although some reviewers have had minor complaints. Beijing Bicycle is a film that is somewhere between metaphor and fable. One reviewer said it is “an eloquently simple picture about a tragically persistent problem: the cycle of poverty and the hard ethical choices faced by those trapped in its daily grind.”

It is certainly one of the most beautifully photographed films we have seen in a long time; lyrical, impressionistic, and provocative. Thematically it’s also the stuff of dreams, the simple honest dream of improving one’s lot in life, getting ahead. This is the dream that is acted out by the two young men at the centre of the story — protagonists, sometime antagonists, and fated collaborators.

Beijing Bicycle takes place in modern-day Beijing, that teeming megalopolis that has made a gargantuan and discordant leap into the 21st century. This is the city that hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.

This enormous city has profited from the market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision-making instituted by the government and which have quadrupled since 2000. This relatively recent letting go was initiated in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping after more than 30 years of strict controls that were imposed on everyday life by the Communists under Mao Zedong. Today Beijing is a city of opportunity but according to one reviewer it is “as class-ridden as any in the West.” Others describe Beijing Bicycle as being a daring portrayal of a class struggle. Another reviewer describes the film as showing a China in which “a rather brutal market society has come into being.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

And yet Beijing Bicycle is also a film about a bicycle, still the principal means of transport for great numbers of the city’s inhabitants. Clearly the bicycle is, and always has been, a symbol of Beijing and, in this film, a symbol of the economic divergence of Beijing in the 21st century.

And yes, I agree with the reviewers that the film is a bold political statement as well as a portrayal of classical themes, and that it is a startling reminder that the largest communist nation on the planet is well on its way to implementing a free market economy.

However — and I’m not a professional film reviewer — it seems to me that film critiques sometimes underplay deeper conceptual and emotional issues, especially in films like this. Here’s what I think about Beijing Bicycle.

First of all, it’s a film that truly blends drama, art, and an examination of the human psyche, and it’s an “art film” in the best sense of that word. Art has no limits of interpretation nor of expression. Art shows the diversity of the human condition and its commonality, its triumphs, and its tragedies. I think Beijing Bicycle is as relevant to young people in the city in which I live who are struggling to find their psychological niche in a rapidly shifting cultural “marketplace” as it is to their counterparts in Beijing.

In addition to the themes and issues identified by most of the film reviewers, I believe Beijing Bicycle is also a depiction of the struggle for survival of simple good nature — especially of the male persuasion — and of a certain style of maleness that is always threatened in cultures that engender predatory male behaviour patterns. This is a film about the quiet unremarkable young man whose sense of himself is obscured by systemic economic and cultural factors.

Guo is a recent arrival from the countryside whose life takes a great leap forward when he gets a job as a bicycle courier. He will be able to pay for the bicycle through his labours, however when his bicycle is stolen so are his hopes, but not his quiet determination.

Jian is a middle-class kid whose penny-pinching father will not buy him the bicycle he needs to gain status in the neighbourhood, impress girls, and imitate American pop culture with cool wheelies. He too is tenacious in pursuing what he intuitively feels is his right. Although from different backgrounds, both young men are dispossessed: they lack control over their fates and a positive sense of themselves.

In swarming Beijing their attempts to fit in and just get on with their lives are thwarted by longstanding cultural and economic factors and a gang mentality. Ironically their struggles are compounded by the competitiveness of the proliferating consumer culture to which they too yearn to belong.

The bicycle is their voice, their liberation, their way out. (In other cultures of course it would be a car. And ironically China has recently become the largest automobile-producing nation in the world.) The bicycle is their talisman. It transports them into a feel-good realm that temporarily grants them self-assurance, a psychic territory that all adolescents constantly strive to attain against formidable odds. And like so many sensitive young people in so many societies, their desires demand that they fulfill their impossible dream, that they “go there” in hopes of discovering that they are really like everybody else but at the same time distinct and separate from the mind-numbing masses.

And what is most “telling” about this story is the bonding by default that occurs between Guo and Jian, although this is also part of their struggle. They are “nice guys” in a not-so-nice world, a fate they share in tandem and in silence. In the end they are forced into a situation in which their dream is brutalized by reality. Both young men represent a simple, youthful ideal: the desire for self-determination and emotional autonomy. However, ideals are often betrayed in excessively hierarchical cultures.

Guo and Jian have many counterparts elsewhere in the world, and in other films. Remember the father-hero of Victoria De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief? (According to some reviews, this is the film to which Beijing Bicycle owes a “debt.”) His actions are those of a nice guy trying to provide for his loved ones in desperate circumstances. And remember the character of Dave Stohler, hero of the American film Breaking Away? As a “cutter” in working class Bloomington, Indiana, Dave escapes the limitations of a class structure — on a bicycle! He too engages in a new milieu adopting the ways and means of another idealized culture, just to be himself. And in Il Postino (The Postman), the bicycle is a secondary but essential component; it’s the hero’s means of transportation to a greater realization of himself, to poetry, and to life.

I think I’ll get on my bike and ride over to check out another Festival Flick.

Interested in other films in which the bicycle is a significant primary or secondary character?

Visit the website Bicycle Movies.


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