China after the Games

Beijing Taxi

on December 20, 2010 by Matthew Nestel

Defying mainstream media's glossy portrayal of China during the lead-up to the Olympics, female filmmaker Miao Wang hatched Beijing Taxi to spotlight some of the capitol's frayed edges and imperfect splotches. Shadowing the ups and bunny-hill downs of three cabbies, Wang's documentary will entreat loads of audiences to get first hand-to-mouth evidence that a nation's prosperity doesn't turn every bean into magical stalk.

Halcyon days seem omnipresent throughout the two-year countdown to the Olympic opening ceremonies. Watching the surreal progress unfold from the POV of a cab driver sets up a direct collision with the lined-pocket fares and the stagnant commoners. The tenor is much more bitter than sweet. Fitted with patriotic yellow and red uniforms, taxi drivers must up the ante in order to keep their meal ticket. That means crash courses in English and navigating through the maze of new construction marvels like the 90-degree leaning towers of the Central Chinese TV Headquarters, or the 91,000 seat National Stadium in the form of a birds nest.

Middle-aged Bai Jiwen remains behind the wheel of a car despite his disillusionment about his country's cultural revolution. Zhou Yi is a heavyset cabbie that carries a prestigious (if hack) license to drive both buses and taxis; he's a loyal son to his father and a tireless worker. And Wei Caixia, a mother and aging beauty, tries to ascend from driver to clothing retailer while suffering marriage rifts and watching her daughter blossom. Of the trio, her story subtly portrays how hard times hit when it's supposed to be Christmas everyday.

Each character seems to give full access on the clock but come closing time the access feels washed and restrained. The tears fall well when Wei tosses her taxi keys and tries to peddle clothes to finicky customers. When she brings wedding photos to the shop teenage co-workers praise her youth but hint she's not the stunner of old. Meantime, Zhou puts his bus-driving license to work after an unemployment stint. His days off involve fishing with his father. Because overcrowding ponds stymie the city they're forced to toss lines a ways out of town. Magically, these untouched natural landscapes bring to mind what idyllic life might be like, away from civilization's noose. As for the aging Bai, he seems to roll with the upscale changes in stride. Unlike his counterparts he never once ditches his driving cap; through all the modern hoopla and his bout with health afflictions Bai's able to keep pedaling.

The footage is a blend of driver-narrated sightseeing tour and dolly shots that glide along bottlenecked taxi stands, where heavy smoking drivers wait between fares in idling cars. Without blaring it onscreen, filmmaker Miao Wang offers a euphoric ode to past. She triumphantly gives streetside glimpses of old hands playing the crude erhuthe peasant music left in to pair with the soundtrack's head-bobbing beatsto courtyard dwellers staying put at now-ancient stomping grounds; playing mahjong and slurping down dumplings. The film gives deference to country. Sometimes too much. The film merely alludes to the many who sweat and bled for the Olympic games only to watch their fruits from chintzy TV sets or from the wrong side of the chain-linked fences. Wang's focus on blue-collar life in the trenches contrasts with her moth-like attraction to the club scene's neon lights and interest in the tourism uptick. Not to be left out is the big elephant in the room: China's mantra of selflessness for country. This clashes with individualism and a breeding concept that dictates no one can be born (or stuck) in a role of low privilege. Despite this murky optimism, the cabbies fail to fly too far from their humble driving day-to-day.

Contact: Three Waters Productions
Director/Screenwriter: Miao Wang
Producer: Robert M. Chang, Icana Stolkiner and Miao Wang
Genre: Documentary; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 78 min
Release date: December 10 NY


Tags: Robert M. Chang, Icana Stolkiner, Miao Wang

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