It’s not that no one cares much about contemporary Chinese cinema anymore—in whatever generation they’re in, if they’re even counting—it’s that there’s so little left to get aerobic about. Certainly, censorship has always had a pasteurizing effect, but the international foofaraw around the films of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige only encouraged an endemic Miramaxation, if you take Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle as evidence. Wang’s movie has all the earmarks of a world-market product: monolithic narrative simplicity, working-class sentimentality, smoothly beautiful young actors, life-is-beautiful cinematography, sledgehammer lyricism (that sometimes edges into the lovely).
Bicycle is essentially a semi-demi-remake of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, but the differences between them are political as well as picturesque. What De Sica used to telescope the throbbing anxiety of postwar Italian poverty, Wang uses to make vague, mushy statements about the Human Condition and its Indomitability. His hero, Guei (Cui Lin), is an inexpressive country boy lucky enough to land a bike-messenger job in Beijing. Of course, from the gitgo we’re waiting for the company’s “upscale mountain bike” he rides to meet with melodramatic disaster. Sure enough, in one excruciating shot, Guei emerges from a delivery debacle to find his bike missing on a busy street. Beijing subsequently becomes a Sargasso Sea of bikes, but because Guei had thoughtfully marked his, he’s got a fighting chance of finding it.
Surprisingly, Wang then refocuses the movie on Jian (Li Bin), a surly schoolkid who has suddenly acquired Guei’s new bike—how, we’re not entirely sure. With this new lease on mobility, Jian gains equal footing with his bike-crazed cronies and a new girlfriend (Suzhou River‘s Zhou Xun). The two narrative vectors eventually cross, but the contrivances hide in plain sight, and the Job-like hero withstands no fewer than three hairy beatings. Wang mistakes affectless storytelling and character conception for rigor, and as a result huge portions of Beijing Bicycle are dull and repetitive. But in a marketplace where so much important Asian cinema goes wanting for stateside screens (start with Hou Hsiao-hsien and the Koreans), distributing Wang’s glossy tribulation is an even-money bet.