Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 24 April 2010
Source DVD screener
Categories The 2010 Independent Film Festival Boston
Director Miao Wang, a native of Beijing who immigrated to the United States twenty years ago, returned to the city of her birth while it was undergoing preparations for the 2008 Olympics. Her film Beijing Taxi begins two years before the Opening Ceremonies are due to take place in China and follows three of Beijing’s taxi drivers on their daily journeys through the rapidly changing cityscape. Void of narration, Beijing Taxi relies on the comments of the drivers and their conversations with customers to provide insight into the city’s shifting culture. The results aren’t entirely what you would expect: vivid but impressionistic, Beijing Taxi doesn’t seek to be the final word on the current state of the city. Rather, the film provides pointed glimpses at a place that many westerners (this reviewer included) have never visited and cannot claim to understand.
Wang has a gift for defamiliarization, transforming the everyday into something beguiling: the play of water and soap across a windshield at a carwash, the bright whirl of pinwheels, a child’s lacquered fingernails, the clatter of pop music and traffic in a city at a night. There is an element of travelogue to how the film seeks to capture Beijing itself, lingering over its contradictory elements. We’re dazzled by the bright reds of a pile of buttons emblazoned with the profile of Mao Zedong in one moment and by a bright red Coca Cola advertisement in another; we see ancient architecture and gleaming images of American movie stars presiding over the same metropolis. Wang’s inclusion of such details give us a strong sense of the old colliding with the new, and a communist country flirting somewhat uncomfortably with capitalism. (One driver’s husband tells her that she is always scheming about money, another gets in a conversation about playing the stock market.)
Yet while Wang is concerned with the title city and its place in the world - issues that raise large and currently unanswerable questions about the future - Beijing Taxi’s individual human element is also significant. The three drivers who we meet provide markedly different perspectives on their profession and on Beijing, on China’s future and their own. The word that keeps reoccurring is ambition. Affable Zhou Yi tells us that he doesn’t have much ambition. “I just want an easy life,” he says. Bai Jiwen, whose life was interrupted and transformed by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, has aspirations - he dreams of the day when he can “travel and take photos” instead of driving his taxi - but feels hamstrung by his age, lack of formal education, and ill health. (“Taxi drivers don’t know until they collapse,” we are poignantly told as Bai Jiwen is temporarily forced to stop driving due to dangerous dizzy spells.) Wei Caixia, meanwhile, is possessed of a passion that lacks direction: what she wants is freedom, and her job as a taxi driver is just one way that she tries to find it. Her restlessness is palpable, and her discussions of characters from books and TV who live “outside societal restraints” stand out in a film about characters working to establish their identities within very real societal restraints. Beijing Taxi has a powerful, defining sense of place, but the contrasting desires of all three drivers infuse the film with concerns that extend beyond Beijing. They are all seeking happiness but struggling to define it.
Beijing Taxi is defined by its uncertainty. It isn’t a film that argues a thesis, but rather one that offers viewers memorable slivers of life that suggest a rapidly changing place with an increasingly volatile identity. At times, the proceedings are perhaps too hazily explained: years of the subjects’ lives are condensed into the film’s brief running time, and with few time stamps and no outside narration, the changes in the character’s fortunes can feel distractingly abrupt. But Wang nevertheless offers us a valuable document of an important time in China’s history, and she allows us to see her native country - too often stereotyped or ignored in the American media - through the eyes of a compassionate, meticulous artist.
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