Director-cowriter Wang draws on DeSica’s classic “The Bicycle Thief” to beautifully tell a simple story about life in modern-day China. Guei (Cui) is a 16-year-old from the countryside who manages to get a job in bustling Beijing as a bicycle messenger. For the first month, his boss keeps a percentage of his earnings, after which his shiny silver bike is his own. But just before the pay-off day, it’s stolen, and Guei tracks it down to a student named Jian (Li Bin) who claims to have bought it at a flea market. Guei and Jian must now cross a huge cultural gulf to sort out their situation.
There’s a natural authenticity to the film that makes it intensely watchable, even though it’s repetitive and slightly underwritten. Several characters just refuse to speak, leaving infuriating gaps in the story and dialog, which lead to misunderstandings and more serious problems. (Does anyone really behave like this outside the movies?) Where it works best is in the desperate central characters, nicely played by young actors who effortlessly highlight the contrast between the hardworking, single-minded, seriously intimidated outsider Guei and the more sophisticated, pushy, devious Jian. The side characters fare less well; they’re underdefined and mainly there for symbolic or plot-spurring purposes only. But the feel of the city is terrific–colourful and vibrant, heaving with bicycles and yet finely focussed on this specific one upon which so much depends.