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Escaping the Past

Present-day China makes it to the screen in 'Bicycle.'

January 25, 2002|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the last decade the most celebrated Chinese films, such as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Farewell My Concubine," have taken place largely in the past--in the Old China.

The 35-year-old filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai understands why noted directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige set their films then. Though they are only a decade older than he is, he says they have the perspective of a previous generation.

"They had a different experience of life, they lived through the Cultural Revolution," Wang says. "They felt obliged to reflect on that period and perhaps search for answers by looking through traditional culture."

Wang, whose "Beijing Bicycle" opens today, doesn't feel that burden. Instead, he says, "What I feel lacking are films that face modern-day reality with a critical eye. The world of today interests me, and I like discovering a new sound."

"Beijing Bicycle," being released by Sony Pictures Classics, rather unsentimentally shows a city undergoing rapid economic development and the resulting clash between country and city, tradition and modernity.

In this congested new Beijing, individuals are often pitted against one another to earn a living, to attain social status, to win love--and sometimes the worst of their nature surfaces. It's not a pretty picture, although Wang sees the humor in the contradictions and the foibles of people's predicaments.

The director, who co-wrote the screenplay, started by asking himself some basic questions. "So many country folk come to the big city to find work--how do they get by?" says Wang, who made a quick trip to Los Angeles recently. A short, slightly pudgy man, he speaks in Mandarin in a brisk manner. "And like others, would they also encounter the temptations of youth?"

The hero of his film is a simple country lad, Guei (Cui Lin), who is newly arrived in Beijing. Guei lands a dream job as a delivery boy, a job that comes with a handsome new mountain bike. This vehicle not only provides a means of transportation and employment, it also signifies his elevated status in the world.

But the bike is soon stolen. Guei loses his job and nearly his mind, then stubbornly launches a day-and-night search for it. Miraculously, he tracks it down in the hands of a slick city boy, Jian (Li Bin), who claims he bought it second hand. For Jian, the bicycle provides status as well--the ability to join his friends in after-school wheely stunts and to show off to a would-be girlfriend--so he's not letting it go easily.

Modern-Day Urban Themes

Materialism in a world where goods are suddenly available is a key theme in "Beijing Bicycle," as is the rebellion of youth. At one point hot-tempered Jian has a shouting match with his father about the elder's inability to keep promises.

Guei is undergoing his own transformation, too, Wang points out. "The country boy isn't able to articulate these kinds of thoughts, but he's also tough," he says. "When he's told not to come back to the company, he comes back anyway. He's in a kind of rebellion against the absolute obedience that was demanded in the past."

Wang himself is clearly not one who follows the rules. Born in Shanghai, he grew up in Guizhou, the poorest province in China, because his mother's factory was relocated there. (His father was a director in the local opera troupe.) Later he moved to Beijing, so he knows firsthand what it is like to go from country to city, to be an outsider.

After a stint in art school, he attended the Beijing Film Academy, the chief training ground for filmmakers in China, in the late 1980s.

Assigned to the Fujian Film Studio in the south, he begrudgingly worked there two years-- "It was a very backward place," he says with a sniff--before making his way back to Beijing, jobless but determined to make his own films.

"That's where my friends are, that's what I'm familiar with," he explains. "And after all, Beijing is the cultural center of the nation."

Living out of suitcases, he eventually put together his first two features, semi-docudramas featuring his artist friends, "The Days" and "Frozen." In 1995 he finally made a film with the Beijing Film Studio, "So Close to Paradise," about two country buddies who try to make it in the big city, this time, Wuhan. One of them has become a small-time hood, and the film touches on the burgeoning presence of gangsters, gambling and prostitution.

No Release in His Own Country

As a result, "So Close" spent three years in the government's censorship mill, finally getting the stamp of approval after a number of cuts were made. To this day Wang is uncertain whether the film ever saw commercial release--his first two films did not.

There are certainly plenty of filmmakers in China making contemporary comedies and dramas, but most of these are commercial fluff unlikely to provide fare for art-house cinemas, where most foreign-language films are shown. Then there is the handful of independent filmmakers unattached to official film studios who make films on their own, often with foreign funding.

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