INTERVIEW: Paradise Lost; Wang Xiaoshuai's Nostalgic "Beijing Bicycle"
by Jean Tang
(indieWIRE/ 01.25.02) — When director Wang Xiaoshuai conceived the idea for “Beijing Bicycle,” his friends reacted incredulously. “In this day and age, who’s going to spend their energy fighting over a twenty-dollar bicycle?”
But after viewing the film, a similar reaction would overlook the point of the story, which focuses on China’s primary method of transportation to highlight intriguing metaphors about capitalism and growing up. At last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, “Beijing Bicycle” snatched the Grand Jury Prize (Silver Bear Award) and New Talent honors for its co-stars Cui Lin and Li Bin. The film, which goes into limited release on Jan. 25 from Sony Pictures Classics, is the latest vivid tale of disaffected urban youth from the director of underground urban films “Frozen,” “The Days” and “So Close to Paradise.”
Profoundly nostalgic, “Beijing Bicycle” sets the coming-of-age of two 17-year-old boys against the backdrop of China’s rapid commercialization and ongoing loss of innocence. Guei (Cui Lin) is a boy from the countryside who gets a job as an express bicycle courier. He looks forward to earning the right to keep his shiny new bicycle, but it gets stolen and turns up in the possession of Jian (Li Bin), a middle-class high school student. A battle for the bike ensues, with unforeseeable consequences.
Jean Tang met with Wang in New York, where the director reflected on youth and economic progress, the Chinese film market, censorship, and twisting alleyways.
indieWIRE: Where did you get your inspiration for this movie? Why a bicycle?
Wang Xiaoshuai: It wasn’t specific; it kind of evolved. Right now in China it’s very popular for filmmakers to follow the west and make these big action movies, these box-office-oriented commercial films. Those are the fad. But China, socially and economically, isn’t yet at the point where it has the capacity to compete with Hollywood. When I was thinking about my next movie, I thought, “Why not just use something organic to China?” I really wanted to preserve the essence of China on film, and create a uniquely Chinese expression. The bicycle is the most typical representative of China. Hollywood has its fancy car chases, but we don’t have to do action sequences with a car, we can do them with a bicycle.
iW: In the press notes you say the bicycle is a symbol of China’s “failure to move forward.” What do you mean by that?
Wang: Ten or twenty years ago, families had to have four major things to be considered modern: a sewing machine, a bicycle, a TV and a washer/dryer. Back then, you needed ration coupons or a letter of introduction to purchase a bicycle. That’s now completely obsolete; for an urban family to be hip today it needs a car, a computer, etc. Under contemporary circumstances, if a family is struggling for a bicycle, there’s something wrong — they’re basically backwards and very poor. By today’s standards, Jian’s family is not a wealthy one. Back then, bicycles were a real status symbol. Today, you can just go and purchase one in the store.
iW: So you were operating from a standpoint of nostalgia. And yet, almost everything in the film is about what happens with these boys as a result of social progress.
Wang: In the film, the point of social change is woven in with the idea of youth. The more advanced and developed a society becomes, the more it tends to lose its simple quality. It’s the same for individuals; as you get older, you lose the pristine sense of the world you have when you’re 17. A 17-year-old is so emotionally simple and sincere. It’s important to try to preserve part of that.
When I conceived the idea for the film, people said to me, “Who would spend so much energy fighting about a bicycle in this day and age?” But that’s the viewpoint of someone who has lost a certain amount of sensitivity or nostalgia about his or her own youth. We all went through this at one point or another; now we’re simply on to the next major possession. So you’re right; I wanted to capture nostalgia for both the past and for growing up. It’s a universal sentiment; even in America, it may be the hottest new Nikes instead of a bicycle, but it’s still the same sentiment.
iW: The censors approved “Beijing Bicycle.” Did you have to get permission everywhere you shot?
Wang: If we were filming at a location for any extended period of time, we had to get the permission of the local neighborhood committee and local police department. If it was an interior shot, all we had to do was find the superintendent or the owner, give him some money, let him know what we were doing, and that was fine.
iW: Mulish stubbornness and determination are repetitive themes in recent Chinese films like “The Road Home” and “Not One Less.” Are these traits viewed as assets in China?
Wang: Yes, those are important themes. The system of law in China right now has a lot of holes, and a lot of people seem to be struggling to find their own way. So in order to deal with this increasingly complex society, which they might not understand, stubbornness is what oftentimes gets them through. It’s certainly a common characteristic a lot of peasants have, and in the big city, it helps them to survive.
iW: There are scenes in which the peasant boy, Guei, is almost comically down on his luck. Did you intend for these scenes to impart a black humor?
Wang: I didn’t consciously think about the humorous aspect of depicting Guei as a peasant in the city, so no, it really wasn’t something I intended to stress. I admit there might have been a little black humor, but it wasn’t intended to be a comic representation.
iW: Is the suburban middle-class boy, Jian, as sympathetic a character as Guei?
Wang: I intended for the audience identification with both characters to be almost identical. Fundamentally, as adolescents, the two characters are the same. The difference is, as a peasant, Guei has a very simple way of dealing with youth — he uses silence. On the other hand, Jian’s method of growing up is more sophisticated: there’s a certain air of superiority that he has. This is completely the result of their respective backgrounds. However, I don’t really place a moral judgment between these two — they are just different outlets of dealing with the same feelings of growing up. In the end, they’re both victims of the tragic story of youth.
iW: Speaking of silence, there are so many parts of the film in which I wanted Guei to fight back, but he remains frustratingly silent. Why?
Wang: Today’s China offers a lot of problems your average citizen can’t resolve through words. There are all sorts of strange social phenomena that cause words to become impotent. So a lot is relegated to action rather than word. You get the feeling in the film that if Guei did speak, he wouldn’t know who would listen to him and his peasant-boy issues.
iW: Can you tell me a little about the censorship process?
Wang: When I made “So Close to Paradise,” the script passed the censors, but it went through three years of revisions and cuts before passing the later censors. The making of “Beijing Bicycle” was a similar, two-step process.
I’m only being semi-serious, but I could even say that I’m a bit like Guei because as a director, I also have to deal with being silent. If a film’s been banned, or changed as a result of the censors, and there are a lot of things I want to say, I still have to maintain my silence.
iW: Why did you refrain from showing most of the movie’s violence on screen?
Wang: Visible action sequences would look like an action movie, and I didn’t want it to. I’m much more interested in the interaction of the characters after the action takes place.
iW: How did you find Li Bin, the actor who plays Jian?
Wang: We rounded up and auditioned anyone who could perform acrobatics on bicycles, and he turned up.
iW: Why aren’t women a bigger part of the film?
Wang: (Laughs) I’m just not good at thinking from a female perspective.
iW: The soundtrack is wonderful, and so wide-ranging that it seems very global. Can you talk about some of your choices?
Wang: In China, there is no clear distinction between Eastern and Western music anymore. Tu Duu-Chih (the sound designer) and I sat for hours at the keyboard, playing around with different sounds and fitting in what sounded good.
iW: Can you reveal your budget?
Wang: The actual budget was roughly $400,000, not including marketing in China or overseas.
iW: When you made the film, did you have an overseas audience in mind?
Wang: As a filmmaker in China, my biggest challenge was to satisfy Chinese audiences.
iW: Why was your focus on Chinese audiences, as opposed to those overseas?
Wang: The film market is poor for Chinese films; the average filmgoer in China doesn’t trust the reality of native films. This is not because of budgetary constraints. Films that pass our stringent censorship don’t typically reflect Chinese people’s lives. As a result, there’s this artificial feeling about some of these films — people wonder, what the heck is this and who are these people? There’s a real disconnect.
iW: Would you ever go back to making underground films?
Wang: If I couldn’t get something through the censors, I absolutely would do it underground. My main focus is to continue making films; however I have to do it, I’ll do it.