By Don Simpson | April 6, 2010
Writer-director Miao Wang’s 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. Wang follows three Beijing taxi drivers – Bai Jiwen, Zhou Yi and Wei Caixia – as she chronicles the effects that the 2008 Olympic Games (and Capitalism) have on working class Beijingers.
Despite the shared occupation of her chosen subjects, Beijing Taxi is not a documentary about taxi drivers; Beijing Taxi functions on a much higher level. Wang rarely settles down for talking head interviews; instead she takes to the streets – by foot and by car – revealing to us the real Beijing. 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.
I sat down with Wang in the parking lot of the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar to chat about Beijing Taxi – which screened as part of the “Documentary Features Competition” at SXSW 2010.
DS: Was the Chinese government aware that you were filming Beijing Taxi?
DS: Does the Chinese government know anything about Beijing Taxi?
MW: I frankly don’t know. I don’t think I was on their radar. I think most documentary filmmakers in China that I’ve talked to don’t work above the radar. Once you’re on their radar, they monitor everything you do. You just never know what they are going to think is sensitive and what’s not. It seems totally arbitrary to me, but…especially since I don’t even live there. I’m not as aware as the people who live in China as to what are the super sensitive…words. It can just be a word that they don’t want to use to describe themselves. So, yeah, I tried to avoid being on their radar. Until they figure it out, I’ll try to avoid being on their radar for as long as I can.
DS: But what about the three subjects who appeared in the film?
MW: Well, the film is not hyper-political. It’s not really dealing with a specific issue. I really wanted the film to just show people’s lives and making connections for the Western audiences as well. These characters are just like any other human beings. They’re just trying to make it and figure out how to survive in a society that’s changing. It’s not an intangible idea. That is really what I want to show rather than a specific issue. The characters have become friends of mine. I do care a lot about them and I really don’t want to get them into trouble.
DS: How did you meet the three primary subjects?
MW: I rode a lot of taxis during my first trip to Beijing in November 2006. I would chat with the driver for the duration of the cab ride, which often could be pretty long because you always get stuck in traffic. The traffic seemed especially bad in 2006 during my first trip. All I remember from that trip was traffic. I feel like the traffic actually got better during my next two trips. Maybe they changed the traffic pattern a little bit? So then I would take a cab to all these different destinations every day, which also helped me figure out the layout of the city and made me much more familiar with the city. I just followed five or six different people at the beginning. Then once I talked to them and thought that they were interesting characters or personalities. I wanted to have each person laying out some different elements and different social commentaries. That’s why I initially picked Wei – mainly for her family life and shifting ideas about marriage, values and tradition. From the very beginning she was very outspoken about wanting freedom and I could relate to that. I live a free person’s life. I’m a freelancer and I don’t abide to anyone’s schedule and I think that’s what she wants. That’s not really something that’s achievable in China, but there are some people who live like that. She sees some people with that lifestyle but she doesn’t have the education or the skills to be able to function independently. Then Bai – I wanted him to show the difficulties that older generation has had to deal with. It’s a very different experience than Zhou – who is more just like an old Beijinger, he just wants to have an easy life. I really wanted him to show all of those old Beijinger qualities and the leisurely lifestyle. He could come off as a total slacker but at the same time its kind of nice and Zen.
DS: How did you come about the concept of using taxi drivers to tell this story?
MW: Right before I started working on Beijing Taxi, I had finished a 30-minute documentary short film [Yellow Ox Mountain]. Around the time I was finishing that short, I decided that I really wanted to make a film about Beijing to document the changes going on in China right before the Olympics. I could have waited, but I felt like I had to start right way. It was a crucial time and I felt like it was a time that really needed to be documented. It was a very historical moment. Then I was chatting with one of the artists from Yellow Ox Mountain – he grew up in Beijing and he’s older – about how taxi drivers are so gregarious. There are always stories about taxi drivers. So, that led me to think that I should make a film about taxi drivers. It would up being such a great visual device, being able to show Beijing from the point of view of the taxis. In the very beginning it was perceived as a common thread between the characters. I didn’t want to make a film about the taxi industry. I didn’t want to explain things, I just wanted to show the characters lives.
DS: Do you feel as though any of the subjects in Beijing Taxi are channeling your opinions of China?
MW: Obviously. I think in every documentary it is decided in the editing room what to include. Everything is subjective even when it attempts to be objective. But I really wanted to show different opinions – which does reflect my opinion because I believe more in the gray than the black and white. I wanted to show how there has been a lot of progress in China. The tour guide on the bus at the end of the film really captures how I feel about China. China is so much about contradictions right now. It’s not perfect and it’s not horrible. Too often it’s portrayed as one extreme or the other. In Western media you always hear about the bad things – of course they are all happening and they need to be recognized and addressed – it’s always about the factory workers and humanitarian issues. I feel like since I live in the West, I don’t see anything about China that shows people. There is no connection between the people in China and the Western world. Whenever you think of China, you think of this “idea” almost. I really wanted to bring things down to the ground level. I wanted to show this side of China to the Western audience. But then there’s the Chinese media, which portrays China as perfect. They want to only show their idea beautiful – which I find silly because sometimes if they would just show the reality people would make more connections to the images; whereas, if you show only the glittery images and propaganda everyone in the West will think China is just spreading propaganda. People don’t believe in that. So I’m trying to balance the different perspectives. The three characters all talk about how their lives have definitely improved. There’s more food. I grew up in China when it was very poor and that’s a reality – you didn’t have enough food to eat. You had to worry about the necessities in life, but now you don’t have to worry about the necessities in life as much. Life also became a lot more complicated. Wei has a lot of modern conflicts and issues that didn’t exist before. It’s very conflicted. I have a certain element of nostalgia for China’s innocence during Communist times. Everyone was equal – though equally poor. It wasn’t the ideal Communism where people would be equal in wealth. Everything has changed and China has become privatized and the inequalities are so vast.
DS: How would you like for Western audiences to react to Beijing Taxi?
MW: I want there to be a connection – that the characters in the film are just like normal human beings, like anyone in America – and they realize that there are the same human struggles. It’s not so different and foreign.
DS: How about the Chinese audiences?
MW: It’s interesting. I think when you live anywhere for a long period of time sometimes you don’t see a lot of things in your life. Especially when you live in a place that is changing as quickly as Beijing, you don’t really have time to pay attention to everything that is going on around you. I would love for the Chinese audience to stop and take a moment to pay attention to how their lives are unfolding. Of course you just have to keep going – and I admire that about the human spirit – and that’s something that is my perspective too. I really believe in human adaptability. I’ve gone through that after immigrating in the U.S. when I was 12. When you have to, you change and morph according to your situation. I want Chinese people to take a moment and reflect amongst all of the bulldozers. Just to contemplate…
DS: What influence did your camera have on the characters’ behavior – especially Wei, because it seemed like the camera gave her a lot of power?
MW: Wei is still so connected to her traditional values. She talks about how she is not like the kids who grew after the 1980s. She did grow up right after the Cultural Revolution. That is probably the main reason she will not get divorced. If she moved to the U.S., she would probably be divorced the very next day. There’s no reason to hold her back except she doesn’t want her child to grow up without a normal family. It’s an older traditional value. People today think more about themselves. Wei sent me an email after I had already finished the film and she said “My husband and my kid are both very happy. They are enjoying their lives, except for me. Maybe it’s my marriage?” I called her a couple days later and she asked me “When are you going to get married? I would suggest not to get married.” She was always very open about talking from the first time I met her. She’s very soft-spoken, but she always had a lot of really interesting things to say. A lot of the interviews with Wei are from the very first time we met on my first trip. Right away I knew that she had to be in the film.
DS: How much time did you spend with each of the film’s subjects?
MW: I’ve been back to Beijing five times in three years and each time I would spend about a month and a half or two months there. I didn’t shoot the whole time – I shot very condensed. Basically I would just hang out with them and just spend time with their families. Then I would shoot for 10-15 days. My cinematographer would be there for shorter periods of time.
DS: What do you see as the benefit for you as a filmmaker to attend film festivals with your film?
MW: I feel like this film is told thru my perspective as someone who grew up in China. I am an insider and an outsider. Making this film made me realize more and more that there is more Chinese-ness about me than I ever noticed before. I have spent 20 years integrating into the Western society and I am Western educated and I am very independent and then I can see from the Chinese point of view and why they would be so annoyed by Western media’s portrayal of China. I feel like having that understanding of the two points of view, I really wanted to share that with the Western audiences.
For more information on Miao Wang and her documentary Beijing Taxi please visit: www.beijingtaxithefilm.com
Don Simpson’s review of: BEIJING TAXI