Beijing Bicycle is a coming-of-age story of two teenage boys in the city whose lives become intertwined through the ownership of a bicycle. One is a country boy, seeking a job in the city, while the other is a school boy looking to become more popular among his peers. On the surface, the bicycle provides both boys with those desired positions, but additionally the bike represents pride and masculinity for Jian and independence and social acceptance for Gui. On a larger level, I believe that Wang Xiaoshuai compares the ownership of the bicycle to the life in the city through depicting the initial excitement and the later reality of hardships. In doing so, he critiques the urban development project in China.
For both Gui and Jian, the desire to own the bicycle encapsulates them and drives every move they make during the film. Gui first receives the bike as a part of his new job as a delivery service person. This new position allows him to earn more money and to see parts of the city unavailable to him simply by foot. The manager explains to the rural boys that the bikes are very new and of top-notch quality. Their shiny gears and sturdy build mimics the dazzling effect of living in the city for the country boys. Unlike Gui, the bike for Jian is less of a necessity, but nonetheless a tool of social mobility. Jian looks at his wealthier schoolmates who perfectly emulate city life with their fancy bike tricks and wants to be a part of that. Only with the bicycle, Jian is able to enter a new circle of friends and attract the girl he likes. Cities mean more opportunities, and the bicycle provides both boys with that.
As the common saying goes, not all that glitters is gold. Just like the additional complications with city living, there are also unforeseen consequences of possessing the bicycle. Soon after ownership, the bike brings both boys much trouble. Just when the bicycle is about to become Gui’s, it is stolen. He has worked so hard up to that point to earn the bicycle, he is devastated. Gui’s loss of the bicycle symbolizes his loss of connection to the city and keeps him in an outsider status. It is at this point that Jian enters the film with an initially ambiguous ownership of the bicycle. Because Gui is so desperate to have it back, and Jian is equally determined to keep the bike and his popularity, the two have several encounters involving physical and emotional beatings. The conflict over bicycle ownership fuels competition and immoral values of greed, commodification, and violence associated with living in the city. Viewers find out that Jian stole money from his family in order to purchase the bicycle from the black market. Additionally, the city life corrupts Gui to the point where he too resorts to violence in order to save his precious bicycle.
Throughout the film, the bicycle serves as a disguise hiding Jian’s poverty and Gui’s rural identity to the public, just as the fancy clothing covered the city woman’s body and true identity as a maid. But objects cannot completely hide someone’s essence. At the end of the film, neither of the boys has a functioning bicycle or a fully functioning role in the city. Jian has given up on the idea of maintaining a popular status at school, and willingly hands the bike to Gui, saying, “Don’t bother bringing it back. I don’t need it anymore.” However Gui has a different reaction when the bicycle can no longer serve him. Instead of discarding it, he picks up the broken bike and carries it on his shoulders like a burden he must bear. This shows the dominance of his rural identity and corresponding characteristics of persistence and stubbornness. Both Gui and Jian belong to marginalized classes within the city and ultimately fail at hiding their urban personas as well as bike ownership.
While Beijing Bicycle may initially be seen as a movie displaying the challenges of adolescence, I think the more important theme of the film is the social critique of urbanization. Wang Xiaoshuai accomplishes this by creating a parallel between living in the city and the ownership of the bicycle. While both at first seem exciting and like a promising chance of a better life, it becomes clear early on that the city’s hype belies the inner strife and challenges associated with it. Likewise, the bicycle was originally new and advantageous, but in the end causes more harm than it does good. Both protagonists use the bicycle to disguise their undesirable, marginalized identities, but these new urban personas are unattainable as is bicycle ownership. The issues stemmed from the bicycle undermine the delights of the city, and the bicycle thus becomes a criticism of the uneven development of China during the urban generation and leaves viewers wondering if the city life is, in fact, a better life.