beijing bicycle (2002)

director: wang xiaoshuai

cui lin, li bin, zhou xun, gao yuan

The basic story of Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle is remarkably simple, but it's the greater context and setting in which it's set that makes the film great, and shares with so much of the superb films coming out of mainland China these days.

Guei (Cui Lin) has arrived in the nation's capital along with thousands of other hopefuls from the country, and lands a plum job as a bicycle courier. For a month, he works paying off the bike he's leased from the company, after which he'll start making real money. On the last day of the month, the bike is stolen, and Guei loses his job when he stubbornly waits around for the thief to return instead of delivering a package.

Elsewhere in the city, Jian (Li Bin) is joyriding with his school chums around one of Beijing's countless construction sites on his new bike - Guei's bike, in fact, which the boy has bought at a secondhand bike market. A poor kid in amongst richer peers, the bike gives him new freedom, including the means to court a pretty classmate. Guei, in the meantime, has quixotically promised to recover his bike, an apparently impossible task in a city of millions of bikes, but he finds it, stealing it back from Jian and incurring the wrath of the boy's thuggish friends.

The story is simple, but the emotion that Wang and his remarkable lead actors evokes isn't. Ambition, once a crime against the state, was legalized in the new China when Deng Xiaopeng proclaimed it "glorious to get rich". People like Guei burn with ambition, while Jian is consumed with its close cousin, envy. It's as if China has entered an awkward, brutal adolescence, and Jian embodies it, driven half-mad with desperation, seething with rage at the broken promises made by his parents who had, for years, promised to buy him a bike, but keep deferring it to pay for a favored younger sister's education.

The best new Chinese films, like Beijing Bicycle and Jia Zhangke's brilliant Platform, manage to be about small lives lived in the tumult of modern China and the whole of China itself, a perhaps unimagined consequence of years of allegorical official state art. Unlike that often stiff work, directors like Wang Xiaoshuai have a confident, fluid touch, natural and exhilarating at the same time. They are, right now, one of the bright spots in cinema.