SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 10, 2010
Director: Miao Wang
Beijing Taxi commences two years prior to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The old city and Socialist lifestyle of Beijing has all but disappeared; a new city of skyscrapers, pillars of Capitalism, is quickly rising from the rubble. As Bai Jiwen, a 54-year old Beijing taxi driver, studiously observes: “The pace of change has sped up, taking bigger strides. To welcome the Olympics! The whole country is supporting Beijing. Faster construction; faster environmental changes.”
Bai is one of three primary subjects whom writer-director Miao Wang follows in order to chronicle the effects that the 2008 Olympic Games (and Capitalism) have on working class Beijingers; the other two subjects – Zhou Yi and Wei Caixia – are also taxi drivers. The three characters are perfect examples of how education (or lack there of) can determine a person’s fate especially in a Capitalist economy.
Bai is counting down the years to his retirement (as of 2006, he has six years remaining). Despite the limitations of his 4th grade education, upon retirement Bai hopes to study abroad, travel and take photos. Intelligent and thoughtful beyond his education level, Bai waxes philosophically about the recent changes in Beijing: “In the old days under Mao, everyone had food on their table, it wasn’t good, but everyone had some. Now some are very poor while a few are extremely rich. As Deng Xiaoping said, a few have to get rich first. Opening the economic doors…Those with skills will get rich first. Someone like me, with no skills, won’t get rich.” Bai understands something that the Chinese government seems to be ignoring: “A Socialist country becoming Capitalist, there has to be a transition. Only when a certain standard is achieved can we reach Capitalism. From a country of poverty and backwardness to an economically powerful country, there has to be a process.”
The Olympic Games become nearer and Zhou Yi is the first of the three subjects to lose their taxi permit. The reason why Zhou has lost his permit is rather ambiguous. However, we do know that his old taxi kept breaking down and he was going to have to get a new one in order to continue driving. We also learn that Beijing taxi drivers were required to pass various aptitude tests (on subjects such as geography and English) in order to qualify to drive during the Olympic Games. Regardless of why, Zhou soon finds himself on unemployment.
Wei Caixia has been a bus driver and a school teacher. She is a modern Chinese woman – independent and forever craving freedom. Wei wants an easier life for herself and her young daughter. She constantly debates with her husband about various business schemes – according to Wei, these arguments are her only form of communication with her husband. Wei’s dream is to open a clothing store – in the process of fulfilling this dream she divorces her skeptical husband.
It is not long before Bai loses his taxi permit due to illness. One of the greatest hardships of taxi driving is that you do not make much profit while working, so you cannot afford to lose money by not driving. You cannot get sick, you cannot take vacations. No matter if you drive the taxi or not, you must pay for it every day.
This is not just a documentary about taxi drivers; Beijing Taxi functions on a much higher level as well. Wang rarely settles down for talking head interviews; instead she takes to the streets – by foot and by car – to reveal the real Beijing. We witness firsthand what modernity and Capitalism are doing to China’s capital city. Bai goes to a “low cost hospital for ordinary citizens.” It seems like everyone in Beijing smokes cigarettes. Billboards for foreign products are everywhere. Old women work on construction projects. Everywhere there is rubble and dust. Time has become a commodity; everyone is expected to move faster (even Wei tells her daughter on the way to kindergarten: “Late again, your teacher is going to scold you”), yet traffic and travel restrictions keeps cars at a near standstill.
A lot has changed in Beijing lately – and most of it appears to have negative repercussions on the working class and poor – but we are subtly reminded, while in Wei’s cab, that not everything has changed as the camera reveals a wad of cash kept in an open dashboard compartment in plain view of her clients. (Is this a sign of honesty and trust or a carefree attitude toward money? Either way, an exposed wad of cash in a New York City cab would not last very long.)