Reviewed by Hannah Lau
Directed by Miao Wang, Three Waters Productions LLC
China, 2010, 78 minutes
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
In February of 2008, I moved from a tier 4 city in northeast China to Beijing, just six months before the highly anticipated Olympic Games. My friends joked that I must really like construction and bad traffic to want to get up close and personal with arguably the nation’s biggest city revamp ever. Sure enough, it was utter chaos just trying to get to work everyday but it did give me a front row seat to the kind of change featured in the documentary, Beijing Taxi.
The film, directed by Miao Wang, a Beijing native who immigrated to the US in 1990, begins two years before the Olympics and follows the lives of three taxi drivers. Each of them shares their own perspective on Beijing’s transformation, China’s rise, and most importantly, what it all means to them. Is China hosting the Olympics really all the glitz and glory that it was dreamed to be? What price economic growth and development?
I wanted to capture the juxtapositions between the old and the new Beijing that exist side by side today, and, most importantly, to experience how the lives and mentalities of people on the ground have been affected. The private vs. public space, the modern vs. the traditional and the internal vs. the external worlds are some of the dualities I want to juxtapose. Miao Wang, director
Bai Jiwen is a 54-year-old man who came from a coal mining town outside of Beijing. He has a fourth grade education and was a former Red Guard but he aspires to do more, to be more. As he drives throughout the day, he listens to English lessons in the taxi to learn common phrases and, when possible, practices what he’s learned with his customers. Though he’s making a point to keep up and stay relevant, he’s against China’s shift towards capitalism. He believes that in Mao’s time everyone had food, even if it was bad food. But under capitalism, there are those who have food and those who don’t. He insightfully shares that native Beijingers have a lazy spirit which is why those who come to the big city from other places tend to make more money. Beijingers are content with just being Beijingers, they live in the capital city and that’s enough for them.
China has emerged into the forefront of Western consciousness through its unprecedented speed of economic growth in a climate of global interdependence. While China is ubiquitous in current world affairs, there is very little understanding in the West about the culture and society of China today. Miao Wang, director
Zhou Yi is a man in his 30s who doesn’t want to be driving a taxi because he believes that he has a more unique license, and that is to drive buses. He also comes from a small town outside the city where his parents still reside. He has a wife and a daughter and in his down time, he takes his father fishing. Being a taxi driver is difficult business because they “wake up in debt.” The lease for the car is paid first so the driver is in the hole before even starting. That puts a lot of pressure on the drivers. He notes that Beijing is changing a lot for the Olympics. Taxi drivers now wear uniforms, there are flowers everywhere, new buildings, and road restrictions. The new “odd/even rule” has been implemented—depending on whether a car’s license plate is an odd or even number, it can only be driven on designated days to reduce traffic.
I started this project with a mission to illuminate the humor, heart, and the humanity of a slice of this massive culture and people. It is very important to me to present a humanist look into the Chinese society, in an era when China has been portrayed mainly in a dehumanized way in Western media. Miao Wang, director
Wei Caixia is a wife and mother in her 30s who was an English teacher, a bus driver, and now a taxi driver. She got into taxi driving for the freedom but finds the unstable income unsustainable. She’s a native Beijinger and says that many like her mourn the loss of the Beijing of their childhood. In the flurry of development much has been lost. Her family models what is now seen as a modern Chinese family. Her parenting values are less perfectionistic, more encouraging, and she discusses ambitious business ideas with her husband as they see each other as equals. Later when she had finally made up her mind, she gave up her taxi lease to start a clothing shop, something she’s always wanted to do.
This well-shot documentary has been criticized over the years for not going deep enough in story. Although I can see some truth in that perspective, I can also see the value in Wang’s approach. More is shown than said, and with the variety of story among the three taxi drivers, it’s up to the viewer to piece together what to make of all this. It’s never as simple as being all good or all bad. As with all things in China, nothing is what it seems—there’s a complexity, a tension to grapple with.
For those who have never been to China and are curious, Beijing Taxi will give you a well-rounded introduction. For those who have been to China, the film will take you back with a familiar nostalgia. For those who are still in Beijing, it will allow you to feel spoken for.
It is in the end a film that takes you on a journey to experience the complex contradictions China faces today, through a down-to-earth understanding of the common citizen’s persistent attempts to grasp the elusive. The world is changing faster than they can keep up with, but they will keep on going, and forge ahead. Miao Wang
Image credit: Fandor.
Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit... View Full Bio