A Comparison of Ladri di Biciclette (1949) & Beijing Bicycle (2002)
7.3/10 with 3,952 user votes -- RT-link
Tomatometer 63%/user rating 74% with 4,852 votes
Year: 2001 Director: Wang Xiaoshuai -- Writers: Wang Xiaoshuai, Tang Danian, Peggy Chiao, Hsu Hsiao-Ming -- Cast: Cui Lin, Li Bin, Zhou Xun, Gao Yuanyuan, Li Shuang -- Length: 113 min. Color/Stereo
It was at a Blockbuster rental store, I'm sure. In 2002, just before I lost my apartment. I read the box blurb for the film plot and was struck by the amazing similarity to Bicycle Thieves
(1949). Was it a remake? The Italian film wasn't mentioned in the on-box text. I rented it, took it home, watched it and saw many parallels, although I hadn't seen Bicycle Thieves
since 1970. My desire to see De Sica's film again and to compare the two might have been the germ idea that led to all these Remake Rematches.
You'll notice that this film has tens of thousands fewer votes than the Italian film on both RottenTomatoes.com and IMDb.com. The film was known as "Bicycle Thief in Peking" in German (Fahrraddiebe in Peking
), and in Italy as Le biciclette di Pechino
. The original title in Chinese simply refers either to Guei as a seventeen-year old, and either his marital state, or the fact that he owns a bicycle. There is apparently a Chinese pun in the title. My point is that thieves are not mentioned. The movie debuted on 6 screens in the USA, following a two-coast release on 25 January 2002. People in France were able to watch the film almost a year earlier, on 25 April 2001. The box office figures aren't available at IMDb for France, but in the US from January to May 2002, on a maximum of 8 simultaneous screens nationwide, the film grossed $158,779.00. Apparently a total of 97 paid admissions were plunked down in the Netherlands. And 20,949 in Spain.
Hardly a blockbuster.
But not every excellent film even pays its way. And many turkeys make billions. There is little violence and fewer explosions in this movie. It's a human-scale project, with no Hollywood hyperbole, or at least very, very little of it. Compare Premium Rush
(2012), which drips with exaggeration.
Yet, this film has all the contention of Transformers
films, where the Autobots and Decepticons whack it out, burble from one form to another, and wreak havoc left, right, and in all other directions. It contains the mystery and suspense of many of Hitchcock's best efforts. It has the lurking monsters of Godzilla
movies, rising unexpectedly from the seas in the form of a kid who buys a stolen bike, and then believes it to be his alone. He needs it to impress his romantic crush. The film has the thugs of The Godfather
movies in the form of the monster's pals who beat up the true owner of the bicycle.
But, of course, to access these superb aspects of the movie you have to be willing to read subtitles; few of us Stateside understand Cantonese or Mandarin. Only about 16% of the people in the world could listen to the dialogue and understand it. Yours truly is not in that 16%.
stands up to the De Sica film in nearly every way. Wang Xiaoshuai, the man who directed and co-wrote it, must love that Italian story, or he concocted an amazingly parallel tale all on his own. There is a 2015 Canadian film, The Confirmation
, that is closer to De Sica's film in form (replacing the stolen bicycle with a stolen toolbox), but Beijing Bicycle feels
more like the 1948 masterpiece. It drips with the same sense of despair. And the despair is in precisely the same place in both films. It's as if the main character recognizes that he's lost, but because he has nothing else to do, he physically and mentally refuses to give up trying to find the bicycle that has become his livelihood. The adjective stubborn
is applied to Guei by almost everyone around him.
There are some differences between the two films: in Bicycle Thieves
, thirty-something Antonio has a wife, a son, and infant daughter. Guo is a single, 17-year-old, with not even a girlfriend to try to financially impress. No kids to look out for. But the loss of the bicycle is the same in both cases. Anto has already paid for his bicycle; he owns it outright at the moment it is taken; he simply cannot keep his new job if he doesn't have the bicycle. Guo Lian-Guei, on the other hand, has to work at the job that the bicycle enables, in order to pay for the bike. It becomes his on the day it is lost, but he cannot do his courier job without the bicycle.
There is even a scene in Beijing Bicycle
that I kept waiting to happen as I watched the 1948 film for the second time while preparing for its review in this Rematch, because it seems to fit. But it isn't in De Sica's movie. It is in Wang's film, and may even be a paean to a scene at the end of Bicycle Thieves
. Yep, there is no vertical bicycle rack scene in the Italian film. That scene is in the Chinese movie.
There is a tradition in 20th century Hollywood of the "bumpkin" film. This is based in print stories of the latter half of the 19th century, when people were migrating from rural areas to the cities. Writers played with the wide-eyed un-cynical world view that immigrants to the cities had. They made much comedy out of this! I am a second generation city-dweller, the first to be born in a city. Both my parents grew up in rural areas; my father on a farm, my mother as the child of a semi-itinerant preacher. Almost all the relatives we'd go visit when I was a child lived on farms or in very small towns. Many of them still do, including some of my cousins and their children.
So, I can relate to Guo Lian-Guei as the counterpart to my father. Guei has moved to Beijing and lives with his uncle, the owner of a tiny shop in the edge of a poor area of the city. Through a chink in the wall of the uncle's shop they can see a rich woman's window in a high-rise nearby. They can't help but watch as she exists in the window of her apartment in an ever-changing parade of fine dresses and shoes. Guei's first delivery takes him to a high-rise office building where he has trouble negotiating his way through the automatic revolving door. At another place he doesn't know how to explain that he is there only to pick up a package to deliver, and follows the inane instructions of the staff at the place. This leads to trouble.
The way he and his co-workers earn their bikes is by receiving only a 20% cut of the delivery fees until it is paid for. Then he will get 50% of the fee for delivering packages for Fei Da Express Delivery Service. Guei keeps careful records of his deliveries, and after a month he is three days from owning the bike outright. On the day when he is to earn and pay the final 70 yuan and be free of debt, his bicycle goes missing. People begin to tell him it isn't about the bicycle, but they misunderstand. This is young Mr Guo's only worldly possession of any real value. For a 17-year old man it has naturally assumed much greater value than being "just a bike." And on the night before it is stolen, he marks it with a series of scratches on the vertical riser for the seat, so that he can tell that this is truly his
bicycle. Not merely one of many that look exactly like it.
Here are some aspects of the film and whether I like them or don't care for them:
The story in this film has moral and legal ambiguity, which raises questions to ponder. Much of the ambiguity comes from culture clash between young Mr. Guo's rural way of seeing people, and the cynical self-centered style of city-boy Jian and his posse.
Someone steals Guo Lian-Guei's bicycle. For days he walks about looking for it everywhere. He finally tracks it down to Jian, mainly because Jian stops at Guo's uncle's store one day, and the uncle recognizes the mark on the bike. But Jian claims to have bought it. There is a chain of transference that cannot be traced. Guo is such a kind-hearted, fair-minded fellow that he does not take the bicycle back. Instead he agrees to share it, even though he has paid for it, too, and he will have only part ownership of the bike that he worked so hard to earn.
As a way to stop the physical violence that Jian's posse shower on Guei for refusing to give up the bicycle, the sharing plan works well until...it doesn't. And Guei pays the price once again.
This film is mostly what we call "pure cinema," with the action carrying the story. Dialog is often minimalist, or carried out at such a distance from the camera that it is unheard.
The spoken word is relegated to the status of carrying story points that simply cannot be deduced from the visual and audio component of the story. Some characters rattle on at length, but that is a way to define those characters. There are long stretches where no one speaks a word, but a lot happens.
Because I have to watch the film with subtitles, I lose any comedic effect that differing dialects would bring to the story. And I'm sure there are such touches in this film. Wang Xiaoshuai is too careful with all the other little details of the movie to have not played with that aspect of a "bumpkin coming to the big city" type of story! I'm sure I miss others because there is one that the subtitles reveal. The counter help at the spa where Guei arrives to pick up a package mistake his surname, Guo, for a Mr Gua that a customer, Mr Zheng, is expecting. They don't stop to think that their boss is also named Mr Zheng.
Jian's father believes Guei, especially when Guei points out the marks he made on the bike. He returns the bike to its owner, but Jian and his gang do not agree with this turn of events, and continue to harass and pummel the courier.
Wang is unafraid to borrow functional tropes when they suit his story-telling. For example, Jian's would-be girlfriend Xiao, sours of Jian's self-pity over loss of the bike, and takes up with muscle-boy Da Huan who is beter at bike balancing tricks. He is a goon, who rides through alleys doing his tricks (thinking he is a hotshot) but who possess her, rather than cherishing her as Jian wished to do. Thus, we learn that girls all over the world too often fall for the bad-boy types.
Liao Ching-Song is the "editing designer" for this film. He has two editors who worked under his direction. There is scarcely a hiccup in the editing of this movie. It all fits together so well, and was shot so well by Liu Jio, that you never get lost when trying to parse the action in a shot, unless it is a clever misdirection by the director.
The director chose young people, technically teens, but university students as his main antagonistic characters. They can't afford cars, but they get around on bikes. They aren't mentally grown yet, so they have some funny ideas about ownership and possession. This gives rise to the conflict in the story.
The four writers took the germ of the idea behind Bicycle Thieves
and updated it by answering the question, "What might happen if someone owned a bicycle that was stolen and then it was bought as a used bike by someone else? What if they met?"
The comic relief is mostly subtle, and no character is better comic relief than Guei's uncle. But all of them can be the subject of gentle pokes. Jian looks ridiculous as he makes a last ditch attempt to win back Xiao by riding circles around her stationary bicycle. Guei doesn't know what to do when he arrives at the Bai Fu Palace, so instead of explaining that he has arrived to pick up a package for delivery, he follows the instructions of the people behind the counter.
Wang's film lampoons city-dwellers more than the innocents from the country. The incident that leads to Guei's bicycle getting stolen is a comedy of errors, with people demanding that he pay for a shower that he didn't have to take. And the people who are demanding payment are the ones who misunderstood his purpose and misdirected him in the first place. It's a comic line, but Guei's uncle may explicitly state one of the themes of this film when he says, "I'm telling you, city people are mean."
Lin Cui plays Guei with authentic subtlety. A good example is the look on his face, and how he moves his head when his group of new-hires are told that the bicycles they are standing beside will soon be their own possessions. Clearly, this kid cannot believe his good fortune. You can tell that he isn't accustomed to owning anything at all, much less a Merida Kalahari 610 mountain bike. Other than the clothes on his back, it will be the only
thing he owns.
For Western tastes the internecine struggle between Jian and Guei may be carried on a few rounds too many. I got the point before Wang's story was finished with it. Or, at least, I thought I did.
But the ending of the film goes a long way toward explaining why these extra rounds are there. It's about more than the viewer merely "getting the point." These young men are trying to transition to the world of adulthood, but they haven't entirely made it there yet. Guei is much farther down the pathway than Jian is.
The ending is not what you are set up to expect, but it's an ending that you will view as inevitable, once it occurs. Of course, I'm writing from Western literary tradition and Hollywood movie tropes. Perhaps if you are Chinese this is
the ending that you would expect.
Wang Xiaoshuai adeptly handles the extended shot. It fits this story of a bicycle courier. An especially good use of it is the shot that comes immediately after Guo realizes that in his tizzy over losing his beloved bicycle, he has forgotten to deliver the package Mr Zheng gave him at Bai Fu Palace. He sets out running bloody murder toward the destination, which is, of course, locked for the night when he gets there. The duration of the shot of Guei running through the darkness says more about how his quest is in vain than any other cinematic trick could do.
Sometimes a shot seems to linger a touch too long. But the pacing is never hectic, even when the characters are running or riding lickety-split through the labyrinthine maze of city alleyways.
Guei's troubles are caused by another person's understanding of their shared situation. This happens all the time in real life. For a cinematic mechanism, this plot development seems as natural and uncontrived as anyone might devise. The bicycle that is the thing at the crux of the tale, is not a McGuffin. The conflict arises because what the bicycle means to Jian is not the same as what it means to its original owner, Guo Lian-Guei.
One exchange between the young men tells in a nutshell one of the basic differences between them. After several days of exchanging the bicycle have passed (Guei runs to do his deliveries when he doesn't have the bike), Jian introduces himself. He extends his right hand and says, "Jian." Guei returns the courtesy, but he introduces himself as "Guo Lian-Guei," revealing his entire identity, whereas Jian has revealed only his given name. The city-born youth holds something back. Guei magnanimously reveals all. Jian was involved in subterfuge and thievery to get the bike in the first place, whereas Guei is, always, totally honest.
From the first shot, a closeup of shaggy-haired new arrival Guo Lian-Guei, standing with a lot of other country boys at Fei Da Express Delivery hoping to be hired, to the final shot of Guo carrying his bicycle for reasons that have become clear, there seem to be few missteps along the way. I saw some the first time I watched. On my fourth viewing, done to write this review, I simply didn't find any apparent mistakes that don't have an explanation somewhere in the story.
This is another of those films that hardly anyone knows about, but I can find hardly anything wrong with. It just doesn't appeal to the money plunkers, I guess. Maybe it will appeal to you if you can find a way to watch it. Maybe it won't.
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. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 'Beijing Bicycle
(pinyin: Shí Qi Suì de Danche; literally: "'seventeen-year-old's bicycle' or 'seventeen-year-old bachelor'") is a 2001 Chinese drama film by Sixth Generation Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai, with joint investment from the Taiwanese Arc Light Films and the French Pyramide Productions.'
The World’s Top 20 Languages—And The Words English Has Borrowed From Them
from Mental Floss. BY Paul Anthony Jones August 25, 2015. 'Linguistically speaking, Chinese is a “macrolanguage” that encompasses dozens of different forms and dialects that together have just short of 1.2 billion native speakers.'
Matts 6. 15-MD
from Merida.com. A bike very similar to Guei's Kalahari 6.10.