A classic romance always involves a certain formula: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Beijing Bicycle is a romance, except the love interest is a bicycle and not a girl.
Guei (Cui Lin) is a very poor but hard-working and determined delivery boy from the “country” area of present-day Beijing. The company that he works for loans its delivery boys first-rate bicycles. Guei is told that if he can earn 600 yuan, his company will transfer ownership of the bicycle to him. Guei toils daily to earn the 600 yuan. Finally, as he is just about to reach his goal, his bike is stolen when Guei leaves it for a moment to deliver a package. Devastated, Guei vows to find his beloved bicycle, and begins to search tirelessly for it throughout the entire city.
On the other side of town, Jian (Li Bin), a teenager about the same age as Guei, has a new bicycle which he adores. Jian claims to have purchased it at a flea market. Jian believes that his new bicycle allows him to fit in better with his peers, and that the status he now possesses as a result of owning the bicycle has earned him the affections of Xiao (Gao Yuanyuan).
Guei, meanwhile, continues his search for his bicycle. By persistence and amazing luck – given the millions of bicycles in Beijing – Guei stumbles upon the bicycle, hung on a bike rack in some obscure location in the city. He tries to take it back but is driven away by a guard. Still determined, Guei somehow is able to trace the bike to Jian. Guei then seizes the bike. Jian runs after him, and what ensues are a series of incidents in which Guei and Jian steal the bike back and forth from each other. In the process, Guei is subjected to continuous, and very graphic, physical abuse from Jian and his thuggish friends.
Eventually, after endless struggles to gain possession of the bicycle, Guei and Jian agree to share it. While this works well for a while, eventually Jian relinquishes his rights to the bicycle because he doesn’t need it to impress his girlfriend, whom he’s driven away by mistreating her. Although Guei has regained sole custody of the bicycle, his troubles are far from over. He and his beloeved bicycle will endure further physical trials caused by Jian’s reckless behavior. In the end, however, Guei perseveres. He and his bicycle may be a wreck, but they are together.
This movie was nominated for 5 of Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best New Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing), and won a variety of other awards. The director, Wang Xiaoshuai, says he made the film because of the special meaning of the bicycle for Chinese people, which he calls a “symbol of China.” He said he also made the film to capture the jubilance of young people getting bicycles – and their heartbreak at loosing them.
To American audiences, Beijing Bicycle may seem like a lot of pointless fights and hand-wringing over a common and easily-replaceable object. To understand the deeper meaning of the bicycle, viewers need to understand that in China, ownership of a bicycle is (or at least was) a sign of prosperity and resourcefulness. Further, it is a key mode of transportation because cars and motorcycles are still relatively rare. For the characters in this movie, the ownership of the bicycle was equivalent to a first love. It filled their desires and needs, and it made them feel more mature and in control.
The problem with this movie is that the symbolism probably does not translate across cultures. American viewers, who are used to automobiles as the principal mode of transportation, are unlikely to feel the way that Jian or Guei feel for the bike – as something essential for survival or for social support. It is hard to stop asking, as the movie progresses, “Why all this fuss over a bike?” Because bicycles are not valued in our culture as they are in China, it is difficult for the audience to connect with Wang’s characters in the way that the director perhaps intended.
The two main characters in this movie did a very convincing job. The audience will feel empathy for Cui Lin’s character, because Cui is able to show him as hard-working and as a fundamentally good person. Li Bin was very believable as the immature, self-centered, and dishonest Jian.
Parents should know that there are numerous bloody fights that may scare younger kids. Characters smoke and pressure a character into trying a cigarette. Beijing Bicycle’s overall theme is perseverance over adversity. The most interesting aspect of this movie was the presentation of how the two main characters deal with the different obstacles placed in their path (theft, and constant physical and emotional abuse). Older teens will enjoy comparing the lifestyles of American and Chinese cultures to each other. They will also enjoy seeing how a common object can have a completely different meaning depending on the person who owns it.
Families should discuss why Guei and Jian cannot live without the bicycle. Kids should think about why these characters obsessions have put them in danger and caused them to do things they normally would not do. Why is it that Guei’s boss call him “the little engine that could”? Why does Jian believe the bicycle is rightfully his? Why does Guei believe the bicycle is rightfully his? Why does Jian give up the bicycle in the end? In American culture, what would be the equivalent of the bicycle to Guei and Jian? What similarities and differences are there in the way people live in Beijing and the way people in large cities live in the United States? Do Jian and Guei have anything in common other than their obsession with the bicycle?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Bicycle Thief,” the story of an Italian painter who searches for his stolen bike which is crucial for his family’s survival (in Italian with subtitles).