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Beijing Rocks
Chinese: 北京樂與路
Shu Qi and Daniel Wu
Year: 2001
Director: Mabel Cheung Yuen-Ting
Writer: Alex Law Kai-Yu
Cast:   Shu Qi, Daniel Wu, Geng Le, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Yu Feihong
The Skinny: Mabel Cheung's film works thanks to fine performances. The story is rather conventional, but the themes Cheung explores are more interesting than the film's premise might lead you to believe. If you like road movies with intelligent social commentary, this film is for you.
by LunaSea:

It seems that Mabel Cheung is one of those directors who doesn't quite fit any of the usual labels of auteur or commercial director. Her films often walk the fine line between arthouse films and more commercial fare. Because of that, she's perhaps some kind of a "half-breed" artistically speaking; she's not accessible enough for the average viewer and not sophisticated enough for the arthouse purists.

Frankly, I find that attitude puzzling. While I'm not too friendly towards overly commercial cinema, I have no problem with a well-made, accessible commercial film as long as it's not too manipulative and/or simple minded. Most of Cheung's films seem to swing between the two worlds, but to date I've never seen her come so close to the middle. I firmly believe we need this kind of cinema, because it provides a crossover between different types of film fans. Imagine if we only had two large parties of Hong Kong film fans: one for Wong Jing and another for Wong Kar-Wai. It wouldn't be too fun, would it?

Beijing Rocks, and films like it, might bring someone not used to arthouse films to appreciate a more intelligent kind of filmmaking, and it might allow the "purists" to lighten up a bit and try to enjoy a more relaxed way of making films. Only believing films are either art or entertainment is stupid. They're ideally a little bit of both, though often none of the above.

I've always respected Cheung for that reason. To date she's made two masterpieces (Autumn's Tale and The Soong Sisters), and two flawed but very good films (City of Glass & Eight Taels of Gold). The rest of her work has been solid filmmaking (including her first feature Illegal Immigrant). Reading some reviews, I thought this film wanted to explore the underground rock world in beautiful Beijing and failed, but it's simultaneously more and less than that. There is an attempt to explore Beijing's rock 'n roll culture, but it's only used to introduce a more conventional, albeit quite charming love triangle as well as an analysis in general of what it means to be Chinese in and out of the Mainland (Which is something that probably concerns Cheung, who spent months in Beijing waiting for approval of The Soong Sisters).

Michael's character (Daniel Wu), for example, represents the type of HK person that is reluctant to acknowledge his roots. Using an interview-style profile, he tells us he hates coming to the Mainland, that his Putonghua is crap (as is his English), and is probably just running from his rich but demanding father (Richard Ng) and the pressures of the world he lives in. After spending time in Beijing, his views change, and probably the only reason he travels with the band is because he finds in them something familiar that he can relate to, even though everything he experienced before didn't make him feel that way. It's his roots that are reaffirming themselves.

Ping Lu (Geng Le) instead is a more "international" character, who still features many traits familiar to Chinese youth. His rebelliousness comes from rejection of a certain way of living. He doesn't merely want to play some rock, he wants to be understood and to be different. Perhaps the reason why he's so conflicted and has difficulty keeping his cool is that he doesn't have a stable figure to follow (ideology means much less than it used to be and he has a problematic relationship with his father) and is waiting for something to happen to him, like making it big in the business and letting his music speak of his insecurities and beliefs.

Yang Yin (Shu Qi), who at first seems like the usual good-looking but empty groupie reveals facets of her personality that make her an interesting character. Like her Vicky in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Millennium Mambo, Shu Qi's Yang Yin doesn't quite know what to do and where to go. However, in contrast with that character, Yang Yin has a strong relationship with her significant other. They're bound to be together it seems, even if their relationship is not all wine and roses.

Mabel Cheung paints quite a refreshing picture. Exploring the rock underground scene would have been quite cool, especially because I've had the pleasure to follow bands like Tang Dynasty and seeing Cheung's view on this matter could have been interesting. However, the themes Cheung introduces are much more interesting. She asks us to understand how Chinese youth react to the changes in the Mainland. The other band members (legitimate musicians) for example portray effectively different characters, from the idealist to the guy who just wants to have fun playing some cool music. However, eventually the struggle of the main characters is more interesting because Mabel Cheung adds a personal, heartfelt touch to the film that makes it involving.

Casting relatively hot properties like Daniel Wu and Shu Qi should have meant some good box office figures, but Beijing Rocks made a pathetic 500,000 HK$ in roughly two weeks of exposure, which just shows that perhaps in today's Hong Kong there's little space for cinema that isn't commercial. In the past, I would have seen casting Wu as a negative, but he fits the character decently. In an interview Mabel Cheung said the haracter in a way represents Wu himself, so it probably was easier for him. His performance suffers from Leon Lai-syndrome (wooden with predictable expression) but somehow Michael comes off as an interesting character.

If three years ago someone had told me that Shu Qi would become this good an actress, I would have laughed in their face. Going from Hustler-like nude photoshoots and Category III crap to starring and excelling in a Hou Hsiao-hsien film is quite a step, but she's been giving one good performance after another. Of course her stunning beauty is hard to overlook, but that's not what sets her apart; there are hundreds of beautiful starlets ready to jump in and fill her shoes. What Shu possesses is the ability to glue you to the screen, much like Maggie Cheung, Gong Li or Brigitte Lin. Shu will have to prove a lot more to be truly compared to those actresses, but judging from the last two years she's one of the most accomplished young actresses in the business. She adds a charm to an otherwise stereotypical character and makes simple scenes touching just with her screen presence.

The finest performance is from Geng Le, who I didn't particularly know before this film. Ping Lu is not a sympathetic character in a conventional way, but perhaps is someone many people can relate to, at least as far as what he endures. Even in the more difficult scenes (with his father, in example) he shines and gives an edge to the character.

Technically, the film looks and sounds great, thanks to the amazing talent of
cinematographer Peter Pau. At first you think the film is going to end up like a Christopher Doyle-like visual orgasm, Pau's style fits the director's restrained touch and makes many scenes stand out. The film has a very road movie-ish feeling (not unlike a mix of Wim Wenders and French Cinema) and that helps to bring across the film's themes.

There are a few flaws that don't allow this film to reach a higher level, especially the fact the film takes a turn for the worse during the last twenty minutes. You expect the film to end, but then something extra is added. Also, the supporting characters are cast aside too quickly for the love triangle. The melodramatic climax feels a bit cheap after all that that quality filmmaking, but it's not enough to change my opinion of the film as a whole. Mabel Cheung's work is convincing, and her films should have a more important part in today's HK cinema. Beijing Rocks is one of the most convincing, personal and charming Hong Kong films of 2001, even if it's not a great one. (LunaSea 2002)


• The excellent Megastar DVD features, among other things, an alternate ending. I'm not a huge fan of those in general (even for classics like In The Mood For Love), and as I thought the extra scenes didn't add much. Unless you're desperate to see Shu Qi half naked, stick to the original ending. (LunaSea 2002)


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mega Star/Media Asia
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

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image courtesy of Mega Star Video Distribution, Ltd. Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen