If you're still harboring images of China as a sooty sullen place where countless millions in Mao suits ride bicycles down broad avenues, Beijing Rocks should serve as a nice loud wake-up call. Just a few minutes in we're treated to the punk rock stylings of the charismatic Road (Le Geng), who's all flowing long hair and leather pants, and his band of hard rockers, including his girlfriend, go-go dancer Yang Yin (Qi Shu).
Catching the tale end of their performance and the inevitable bar brawl that ensues is Michael (Daniel Yu), a poor little rich kid and well-known pop star from Hong Kong who's in town to learn Mandarin and hide out from the Hong Kong press, which wants to learn more about pending criminal charges against him.
Michael compliments the band on their sound, tells them he plays music too, and soon becomes part of the boisterous gang, racing around the city having fun and making noise wherever they go.
As the group leader, Road is the musical and philosophical visionary. He's prone to saying the Chinese equivalent of "It's all about the music, man" a lot and wants his poetic lyrics to be heard by the masses, as long as he doesn't have to sell out to get it done. His idea: to go "hole-hopping" around the country, traveling in a graffiti-covered bus and playing one-night gigs in a tent for bumpkins who've never seen or heard anything like this before.
And away they go, with the captivated Michael in tow. This part of the movie is the best, beautifully shot and full of tableaux that contrast the old China with the new. You can easily see and feel the tension between the two. Add to that drama the predictable love triangle that develops among Road, Michael, and Yang Yin, and the film rushes toward tragedy spawned by jealousy, ego, and family curses.
Director Mabel Cheung, a cross-cultural auteur who got her Master's at NYU, is the right person to helm this kind of story, one where Western cultural influences smash into not only governmental disapproval but also traditional ideas that are hard for society to shake. Road and the gang are constantly frustrated by their inability to fully express themselves and be heard. In fact, it's that frustration that propels their music and makes it seem vital to the milquetoast Michael, who realizes his Canto-pop stylings are lame by comparison.
Beijing Rocks is an interesting trip not only to Beijing but far beyond, to places where artistic innovation clashes with traditional culture, leaving artists to vent their frustration however they can.
Aka Bak Ging lok yue liu.
But only after Cleveland.