Intertextuality in Beijing Bicycle
Intertextuality is a concept that occurs in many mediums of art, especially film. Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle employed intertextuality in order to pay homage to two movies in particular, Rickshaw Boy and Bicycle Thieves. These two earlier films are both similar in story, themes, and movie structures to those present in Beijing Bicycle, however they also have some key differences. In this paper I will prove that director Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle was more of an homage to Bicycle Thieves than it was to Rickshaw Boy in terms of both narrative and structural features.
Many narrative and story structures used in Beijing Bicycle paid homage to those used in Rickshaw Boy, but the films were still very different. Perhaps the clearest indicator of homage used in Beijing Bicycle was at the beginning when the boss said to the row of new employees, “You are the new generation of Camel Xiangzi.” In this piece of dialogue, the movie directly mentions the main character of Camel Xiangzi, pointing out the similarity between him and the express delivery boys, having to memorize the streets of Beijing. These films both dealt with two young men from the country that used a form of self-propelled transportation for their living. However, Beijing Bicycle centers the story on two young boys and their struggle for ownership of the bicycle, while Rickshaw Boy focuses Xiangzi’s struggle to obtain his rickshaw and the challenges he faces. Xiangzi, Jian, and Gui were subject to a spiral downward in their lives. Despite their initial health and vigor, both Xiangzi and Jian started smoking midway through both films, however at the end Gui walks off with his mangled bicycle, manifesting that his will and moral courage to succeed is slightly greater than his destined fate, whereas in Rickshaw Boy Xiangzi degrades to giving up his most important morals and becomes a victim of fate. Beijing Bicycle borrowed many similar themes from Rickshaw Boy, however key differences still exist.
The structural features in Beijing Bicycle also showed some similarity to Rickshaw Boy. In both movies, colors were downplayed, and people often wore plain clothes; the express delivery boys had to wear brown uniforms and the Xiangzi only wore a grey tunic, revealing that they were both interchangeable workers. Also, in Beijing Bicycle, low angle shots used on the streets at the beginning of the film were helped to express his mobility and power. Similar shots were used in Rickshaw Boy, for instance when Mr. Cao offered Xiangzi money for his new rickshaw he was shown in low angles, showing his power and hope for the future. It seemed that more studio sets were used in Rickshaw Boy, while in Beijing Bicycle more emphasis was placed on shooting on location showing the reality of the times. The music in Rickshaw Boy was often dramatic and used for emotional emphasis; this is especially clear when Xiangzi witnessed the dead corpse of the prostitute girl; contrastingly in Beijing Bicycle there were many scenes with silence and non-diagetic music was not emphasized. Overall, both of these films seemed to have quite a few similarities in their structural features, but there were major differences in design and music.
The narrative structures used in Bicycle Thieves were very similar to those used in Beijing Bicycle. The Beijing Bicycle story was very dynamic because we saw both Jian and Gui’s lives in their struggle for the bicycle. In Bicycle Thieves, we were shown Ricci and his struggle with the thief over the bicycle, but we never saw into the thief’s life and saw his motivations. Beijing Bicycle tells a much more intricate story because we get to see the bicycle from both Jian and Gui’s perspective, and we are left to decide who we want to have the bicycle. In the story, the director introduces Gui as having the bike first, as well as being more honest. We see Jian portrayed as being somewhat mistreated by his father and using money that should have been his to pay for the bike, but because of deceit and the fact that he received the bicycle second, it seems that the director is trying to persuade the audience to sympathize more with Gui. Bicycle Thieves did not have very many melodramatic elements, because at the end there was no resolution, only a sad ending where the father still has no bicycle. The acting was also very realistic and not overdone. Beijing Bicycle also had very few elements of melodrama because there seems to be an anti-resolution of the express delivery boy getting back his bicycle after the fight, even though it is somewhat mangled, but Jian is left with nothing. Also Jian seems to be the antagonist, although he is not entirely evil and we get to see the struggles that he has in life. Overall, both films were mostly anti-melodramatic. In Stephen Prince’s book Speaking in Images, Wang Xiaoshuai said one thing he tried to convey in Beijing Bicycle was: “I think that no matter where people are from, whether the city or the countryside, they are equal before fate” (Berry 176). This quote reveals that Wang Xiaoshuai was trying to convey that all people are subject to fate, a theme that we also saw in Bicycle Thieves; no matter how Ricci worked, he was ultimately subject to fate and left with no bicycle and crying on the street. Both Jian and Gui were also victim to similar fates, but it seems that at least Jian had a choice in his fate; he chose to steal money from his father which led to negative consequences in his life. Even though there are some slight differences, these two films were very similar in their narrative structure.
In terms of music and editing, Beijing Bicycle showed great similarity to Bicycle Thieves. In both movies we are shown scenes where Ricci, Jian, and Gui ride their bikes through the streets in low angle shots with upbeat music. However in both movies there are also many long pauses with no music, only ambient sound, showing the realistic setting. In Beijing Bicycle, we are shown a bicycle montage, foregrounding the idea of the bicycle. Foregrounding the idea of the bicycle is not done by montage in Bicycle Thieves, but rather the bicycle is the center of the action; Ricci pawned his sheets in order to pay for it, brought it with him everywhere, and seemed paranoid in safeguarding it from theft. Overall there was much more editing and many more shots in Beijing Bicycle than in Thieves. Bicycle Thieves minimized editing; it was slower and more like real life and true to the neorealist genre. However, Beijing Bicycle used shorter edited shots to give a faster pace. The musical elements seemed to be similar in both films, while there was much more editing in Beijing Bicycle, although both movies show similar messages.
In terms of cinematography and mise en scène Beijing Bicycle also showed a lot of similarity to Bicycle Thieves, and both films created realistic settings with their film structures. Both films were shot outdoors in the sunshine and had brighter contrast schemes throughout, giving a realistic view of life, not hiding anything. In addition, both movies also used very realistic sets. In Bicycle Thieves the sets were gritty and honest, characteristic of Italian neo-realist films, and it was shot on location; in Beijing Bicycle also seemed to be filmed on location without any alteration of real places. Both films also seemed create realism in acting; Beijing Bicycle used unpopular actors that seemed like they were from the country; this is especially shown in the opening scene when the boys stutter in their interviews. In Bicycle Thieves, the same thing was done; the actors were all relatively unknown and naturally fit the roles. This type of acting enhanced the realism and emotion in both films. Going along with realism, there were deep focus shots used in each film; in Beijing Bicycle we are shown a deep focus shot with the hallway of bikes at Jiang’s house. Deep focus shots were also used in Bicycle Thieves to show inside and outside and the streets behind, showing a more real and complete world. Overall, the structural features in Beijing Bicycle were strikingly similar to Bicycle Thieves; both films sought to create a true and unmolested setting.
These three films were all very similar, and the later film Beijing Bicycle certainly expressed homage to both of the former films. They all had similar stories of a boy needing a form of transportation to so his job, then getting in stolen. However, Rickshaw Boy seemed to have fewer similarities in terms of narrative and structure with Beijing Bicycle. Overall, it seems that narrative and structural elements in Beijing Bicycle seemed be influenced much more by Bicycle Thieves than Rickshaw Boy in terms of intertextuality.
Berry, M. (2005). Wang Xiaoshuai: Banned in China. 173-79. New York: Columbia University
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