Reviewed by Ernest Khoo
Chinese Title: Bak Ging lok yue liu
Director: Mabel Cheung
Writing Credits: Alex Law
Cast: Geng Le, Richard Ng, Shu Qi, Daniel Wu, Yu Feihong
Genre: Drama musical
Country: Hong Kong
Year Released: 2001
Runtime: 110 min
There's rock 'n' roll, and there's rock 'n' roll. The former is passionate, heartfelt music, while the latter is a commodified product made with sales in mind, devoid of passion and soul. In Beijing Rocks, director Mabel Cheung attempts to bring these two opposites together to make a film about the passion of rock music (in this case, Chinese rock music) that will appeal to the masses. The result, however, is a film about Chinese rock music that opens with a bang but closes in a whimper.
The energetic opening sequence of this film is promising, with scenes of Beijing street life juxtaposed with those of a band playing in a club. On the soundtrack, we've a nice mix of traditional Chinese music and hard rock. Interspersed in this MTV-ish segment, we're introduced to Michael (Daniel Wu), an unsuccessful Hongkong songwriter who is stuck in the Imperial city. Next, we're in a club where we're introduced to a hard rock outfit Moonwatchers and its impetuous and idealistic singer Ping Lu (Geng Le) and his girlfriend Yang Yin (Shu Qi), a feisty dancer in a traveling dance troupe.
The film then chronicles the lives of the three characters and how they end up discovering the realities of life and the irony that's rock music. Although there's a central narrative, the film seems to meander around different incidents. They include Ping's attempt to clinch a contract with a record company that refuses to acknowledge his music, Michael's acceptance of his relationship with his rich dad, and Yang's having to deal with and accept her life as a go-go dancer.
Like any self-respectable rock 'n' roll story, the film ends with a death. However, it is handled in such a way that the excitement and energy found in the earlier part of the film fizzles into melodrama.
Thankfully, what saves Beijing Rocks from being a mediocre flick are moments when it's not trying to tell a story. One such gem is when Ping and Michael compare the essence of rock in Hongkong and Beijing, and Michael replies that there's no rock 'n' roll in Hongkong. Another is when a music pirate tells Michael that the popularity of a band is determined by whether a pirated version of their album is available. Through these scenes and dialogues, the film subtly comments and reflects on issues like art versus commercialism, piracy, the listlessness of youth in modern China, and even expectations of parents who don't understand their children's needs to express themselves using music. These are moments when the film truly shines.
While the cast is competent enough in portraying a bunch of young people in modern China, none of the performances really stands out. What stands out more is the film's ability to flutter between scenes with flashy MTV-ish editing and those that're more inclined toward realism.
Ultimately, Beijing Rocks tries to reflect the spirit of the times with Chinese rock music as the soundtrack. But compared to the 1993 Beijing Bastards (starring Chinese rock musician Cui Jian) which captured the alienated youths and the rock underground in China in a gritty, almost documentary-like style, Beijing Rocks seems more of a sanitized flick that'll not upset the music mainstream, let alone start a rock 'n' roll revolution.