- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

''Beijing Bicycle" pedals off to a promising start. Indeed, it promises to become a compelling update on a great movie, Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief." Unfortunately, director Wang Xiaoshuai complicates and eventually muddles a crisis that seemed to possess clarity at the outset.

Perhaps "Beijing Bicycle" is best apprehended as a cautionary saga of Chinese social tensions and conflicts, especially among the young.

The involving part of the movie deals with the plight of a tenacious country boy called Guei (Cui Lin), who secures a bike delivery job with an agency in Beijing. Called Fei Da Express, the company outfits its messengers with sleek mountain racing bikes and holds out the promise of ownership as soon as the riders have generated a certain amount of revenue.

Guei rides like a boy possessed and draws within reach of the target after a month or so on the job. Ownership will open the door to dramatically improved wages: 50 percent of every delivery fee instead of 20 percent.

With the prize only days out of reach, his precious machine is stolen. Immoblized, Guei fails to complete an afternoon delivery or alert the company. He learns the next morning that he has been fired not because of the loss of the bike, an occupational hazard in a city teeming with bike traffic, but for botching the delivery.

The office manager, smartly and agreeably played by Xie Jian, takes pity on him and agrees to rehire him under certain conditions. He must find the stolen bike, which seems an impossible quest, but the movie contrives to make it miraculously feasible. At that point, the scenario begins to unravel.

The bike is found in the possession of a sneaky, seething lower-middle-class schoolboy named Jian (Li Bin). Jian has been nursing a grievance against his dad, who promised him a bike but had to renege.

Initially, you jump to the conclusion that Jian must be the bicycle thief, but subsequent revelations imply that he has stolen money from his father to buy a machine at a flea market.

Jian's pals allude to this later, after Guei intrudes on their turf and makes his claim on the bike. They bully him, he refuses to give up and a tug of war over possession plagues the rest of the story.

"Beijing Bicycle" confuses the issue of whose story we're supposed to be watching. Guei is a sympathetic figure, in part because he's an ignorant but aspiring newcomer in an overwhelming urban setting. That's not a perspective that ought to be abandoned or shortchanged. Adding Jian to the equation proves self-defeating because he remains a treacherous and hateful youth.

Maybe the struggles of both boys have a comic dimension to the Chinese that gets lost here. They may confirm prejudices about the sorriest traits of mulish greenhorns on one hand and city-bred vipers on the other.

A semifacetious subplot has a pal of Guei's enthralled by a fashionably dressed young woman in a nearby apartment. Sometimes she saunters in to refill water bottles at his shop. He assumes that she's out of his league and learns that he has it all wrong.

You begin to suspect that the movie never was intended as the odyssey of one boy at odds with a city of strangers. Maybe it's a city of countless, far-reaching estrangements, and Mr. Wang has allowed his movie to get swallowed up in the morass.

Nevertheless, he demonstrates considerable facility with the medium in the early episodes while concentrating on Guei and using him as a key to the city, linking far-flung districts and neighborhoods. There's something appealing about discovering things along with the newcomer who needs to familiarize himself with a multitude of streets, dwellings and offices.

While that part of the movie unfolds and then engages your sympathy as a fable of loss and injustice with scant possibility of recovery or vindication "Beijing Bicycle" does have the makings of a classic.


TITLE: "Beijing Bicycle"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai. Screenplay by Mr. Wang, Tang Danian, Peggy Chiao and Hsu Hsiao-Ming. In Mandarin with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes


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