Someone figured out a long time ago that people on bikes are cinematic. Both on and off its central totem, Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle is beautiful to behold, to a point. The gorgeous cinematography turns increasingly to the dark and finally, punishingly, records despair and searing physical and emotional pain. It's a feel-bad movie.
Wrought in the neo-realist style (like so many foreign imports), Beijing Bicycle takes off from Vittorio DeSica's seminal neo-realist picture Ladri di biciclette (popularly known as The Bicycle Thief). Beijing Bicycle begins by observing Guei (Lin Cui), a young man on his first day of work at a promising new job at a delivery service. Supplied with his own ride-to-own bicycle (and inspiringly instructed to consider himself one of "the carrier pigeons of today"), Guei puts his head down and works to earn the bike (and the promised cut of the profits to follow). After a month of toil, Guei's attempt to claim the bike is brushed aside until "tomorrow." Naturally, his bike is stolen before he can lay claim to it, setting off a chain reaction of unpleasantness.
The film's direction takes a sharp turn at the introduction of the bike's new owner: Jian (Li Bin), a student Wang pointedly keeps mostly in uniform coat and tie. Somewhat more "well-off" in the urban jungle (though his cheer at his new bike hides his true identity as an emotional basket case), Jian appears at first to be the antagonist. But as the film wears on, Wang blurs the line so that the audience questions Guei's self-involvement almost as much as Jian's. The victimized Guei, increasingly hardened, seems righteous, but his enemy may not be the criminal he's cracked up to be. Neither will give up his claim to the bike without a fight, and though Wang makes the emotions raw, he also plays the young men as dogs fighting for scraps in an uncaring city, navigating the corporate gauntlet and the backstreets of "not my problem" metropolitan natives.
It's to Wang's credit that he allows not only for social critique, but also unflinching personal drama. The film is as much about the anger of youth (at the upsetting reversals of fortune known as coming of age) as it is about the failings of Chinese social structure. As such, Beijing Bicycle's intractable dilemmas are worthwhile, though the aftertaste is medicinal.