Beijing Bicycle Review

A young man from the country, Guei, gets a job with an express bicycle delivery company in Beijing. Part of his commission goes to pay for the bike that has been supplied by the company and after a month of hard work the bike is almost his own. Picking up a delivery from a men’s club, he leaves to find his bicycle has been stolen. The fact that he has lost the bike, which was almost paid off, means little to the company, but his failure to make the delivery gets him fired. He vows to get the bike back with such determination that the manager agrees to take him back if he finds it – no small feat in a city the size of Beijing where everyone owns a bicycle...

...everyone except Jian. All his friends have bikes, the girl he likes rides a bike, but Jian’s family is poor and his father always seems to have other urgent needs for the money he earns. But somehow, Jian has got himself a bike, the same one that belonged to Guei, and a fierce struggle ensues between the two boys, both of them claiming ownership of the bicycle.

The theme of a stolen bicycle and its representation as a struggle against poverty and the strength of individual spirit has been used often, most obviously in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and in an Asian context, although somewhat more obliquely, in Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo. Beijing Bicycle sits well and deservedly among such films. It is a fine piece of film-making – strong storytelling, intense and emotionally-charged scenes with strong characters that are well developed and powerfully played out. It is difficult not to become involved and feel for the characters in each of their predicaments. Both boys are equally determined to rise above the poverty of their situations and the humiliations that this involves. Both have tremendous strength of spirit and strength of character and both use this strength in different ways. As the film develops we see how far each of them is willing to go for what they believe is rightfully theirs.

The film is superbly paced and expertly directed – it consistently delivers on the set-up and you know that there will be a significant development to the plot every five minutes. There is not a wasted scene, a wasted line or a performance or situation that doesn’t ring true. Some commentators have criticised the somewhat melodramatic finale to the film, but it seems appropriate as the film has been building emotionally throughout and it balances the perfect symmetry and contrasts that are evident throughout the film.

Beijing Bicycle won the Silver Bear, Grand Jury Prize and Best Young Actors prizes at the Berlin Film Festival 2001.

The picture is mostly clear, bright and free from marks on the print. It is a little soft in place, losing definition slightly in long shots. A faint light flicker is sometimes visible, but as the film is mostly brightly lit, this is rarely noticeable. A fine grain can be seen on occasions and some digital shimmering when there are slow pans of the camera. Some blurring can also be detected suggesting a PAL to NTSC transfer. For the most part however, the image is quite fine, bright and colourful, carefully framed and beautifully shot and the quality of the 1.85:1 anamorphic print on this release is pretty good.

The film has an excellent sound design by Tu Tu-Chih. Consequently the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack has all the dynamics of a 5.1 mix without the distraction of surround sound. The musical score by Wang Feng is also worth noting and comes across very well on the soundtrack.

Apart from a few trailers for other releases, there are no extras at all on the DVD. The disc reviewed here is the Canadian R1 release of the film from Séville. Personally, I am more than happy with a barebone release and don’t see that the film would benefit from any other extras apart from possibly a commentary track. The USA R1 and Australian R4 Columbia Tri-Star releases appear to be identical to this release (apart from the cover). Anyone looking extra material could check out the Korean R3 Beijing Bicycle which includes a CD of the excellent soundtrack. Metro Tartan are distributing the film in the UK and it is unlikely that they will include any extras on an eventual R2 release.

Beijing Bicycle is a strong film with an engaging, dramatic and emotionally powerful storyline and it is certainly worth seeing. The DVD is without extras, but in the case of this film they are hardly needed.

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