A tale of two boys, one bicycle, reveals Chinese society

Chinese filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai has endured more than his share of censorship. His first movie was banned by the China Film Bureau, his second was released under a pseudonym, and his third went through three years of editing before reaching the screen.

His latest picture, "Beijing Bicycle," premièred in America this week. It contains such a critical view of contemporary Chinese life that censors must be loosening their ideas of what's acceptable for export. Or perhaps they were impressed with the honors bestowed on the film, including the grand jury prize at the Berlin film festival.

Two boys are at the center of the story. Guei, from the countryside, is filled with enthusiasm about his new job as a big-city bicycle messenger. After just a few weeks of hard work, he'll own the shiny new bike his bosses have supplied him with. But the bike gets stolen, and his world will shatter if he can't recover it. Jian wants a bike so he can keep up with his friends and impress a girl. He finally buys one he can afford, but Guei arrives with news that it's stolen, and he's the rightful owner. Soon they are embroiled in a feud that spills into every corner of their lives.

Movie buffs will recognize "Beijing Bicycle" as an indirect remake of Vittorio De Sica's classic "The Bicycle Thief," transplanted from postwar Italy to a 21st-century city where neither steady work nor simple pleasures can be taken for granted by underprivileged people.

But Wang's film takes off in its own direction, careening from comedy to anxiety and violence as briskly as Guei and Jian steer from one crowded avenue to another on their bitterly contested bike. At times, the film meanders from its course and loses dramatic focus. But it's vividly acted and creatively directed.

• Rated PG-13; contains violence.

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