Guei (Cui Lin) is a young, new arrival to Beijing from the countryside, simple-minded but stubborn and strong-willed, taking on a job with a courier service that provides him with a bike in addition to pay–a bike that he must, nevertheless, earn with his job. He happily makes his way around performing his job, at nights discussing the approaching ownership of the bike with his friend and housemate Mantis (Liu Lei). He is happy with this job, even though it only pays 20% until he earns the bike (thereafter earning 50% of the delivery fees), but remains as simple as he began–when he attempts to deliver one letter, he is misdirected by hotel staff into going through a shower, eventually having to argue his way out of paying for it, which he is less than good at–simply repeating his occupation and saying he didn’t intend to use it until he was directed, thankfully saved by the hotel’s manager–intended recipient of his letter–who pities him and sends him on his way. Unfortunately, his way has been stolen–in the hundreds of thousands of bikes in Beijing, his was stolen at this time, which leaves him searching endlessly and dejected. He returns to his manager (Xie Jian) and begs to keep his job. Of course, his job is impossible without a bike, and he was caught up in his distress over that loss and nearly forgot to deliver his last message for the day. Consequently his manager, of course, fires him–but the simplistic Guei suggests that if he can find his bike–obviously a ridiculous condition–he should be able to return to his job. The manager chuckles a bit at this absurd idea, but says, effectively, “Why not?” and that if he indeed can find it, the job is his.
Meanwhile, student Jian (Li Bin) is seen with his friends practicing freestyle bicycling* in a building under construction, they commenting on his new bike, asking if his father had indeed finally bought him one. Indeed, though, this is not the object of his new bicycle ownership–Xiao (Yuanyuan Gao) is the pretty schoolgirl he wants to impress, and being able to ride a bike with her seems like the best way to do it. When we see him ride off, it is with a sense of final freedom, as if he is feeling something he has never felt or experienced before. Xiao does indeed ride with him and even goes with him to sit in the woods. Unfortunately, Mantis has noticed Jian in passing, and unbeknownst to the two lovebirds, Guei has snuck up and discovered that it is indeed his bike, complete with the marks he made on the back above the wheel. He makes off with it, but Jian manages to catch him doing so and chases him down.
Now it becomes a contest between the two to prove who rightfully owns the bike, with Jian having the backing of his friends, and Guei having only his negligble–often miserably underused, even as lame as they are–debating skills.
I almost hated this movie. The treatment Jian’s friends give to Guei, the sense of entitlement Jian has offended me pretty violently–but in retrospect that came to be a positive, as the story unfolded and showed me the error of my perceptions and went in unexpected directions. Suddenly Jian and Guei were both understandable and sympathetic characters–though some actions by Jian remained indefensible in my mind. But, as I’ve found with much of eastern “literate” cinema (as opposed to the action variety) there is a tendency toward an observant eye in the camera, rather than a judgmental one (or perhaps the judgment is better seen through an Eastern cultured eye, I can’t be sure of that) and I struggled to stop judging the film for the nature of one of its characters, but the treatment of Guei despite his intentions and limited social–or more importantly, societal–skills were heartbreaking. But this just speaks to the skill and emotion built so firmly into the film, with beautifully detached cinematography and a wonderful soundtrack that manages to encompass both ambient music and completely rhythm-oriented music, a fascinating dichotomy to represent the opposing moods of complacence and violent conflict.
A fascinating and interesting movie with a very strong and interesting message about class and materialist status symbols, but a difficult one to watch, I found.
*Honestly, this has got to be one of the dumbest looking sports I’ve ever seen.