Beijing Rocks (2001)

Directed by: Mabel Cheung
Written & produced by: Alex Law
Starring: Daniel Wu, Shu Qi, Geng Le & Richard Ng

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2002:
Best Picture
Best Cinematography (Peter Pau)
Best Sound Design (Tsang King-Cheung)
Best Original Film Score (Henry Lai)
Best Original Film Song: Huiyi zhi qian, wangji zhi hou (Before Memory, After Forgetting)
Music: Henry Lai
Lyrics: Alex Law
Performed by: Wong Fung

It feels a little uncomfortable to criticize two talents like Mabel Cheung and Alex Law. On every Mabel Cheung movie there is an Alex Law involved (they're married actually) and their finest hour together could might as well by my personal favourite An Autumn's Tale. Their production Beijing Rocks is a more youth oriented film, revolving around music but the end result is very much a mixed bag.

Michael (Daniel Wu) is a Hong Kong singer/songwriter arriving in China to avoid his legal problems for the time being. Through his rich and influential father (Richard Ng) some of his music have been produced but right now he's also under the pressure to deliver more. He meets up with a local Beijing rockband, headed by their singer Road (Geng Le). They go from village to village performing and trying to make people understand their message in music. Michael joins them on their journeys and hope to gather inspiration and him becoming friends with Road's girlfriend Yang Yin (Shu Qi) is perhaps one step towards that...

Starting with Mabel Cheung's narrative, it has much difficult getting off the ground. Some movies can take as much as 30 minute before their true plot is revealed but for Beijing Rocks it takes a full hour. We just follow the band and it's characters around for a long while but nothing seems to happen. It's almost like a really tedious documentary. When it eventually finds its plot it becomes more compelling but basically the movie is nothing more than a watchable love triangle drama. Mabel showed in An Autumn's Tale that you don't need to complicate the proceedings if you have good writing and actors but what is required of you though is making sure to maintain interest throughout, especially from the top. Beijing Rocks does therefore drag but the remaining 50 minutes makes the experience worthwhile.

Alex Law's script finds it's flow and it's characters from this point on. They may not have huge depth (each gets a CGI enhanced intro though) but from the hour mark they become more interesting to follow at least. The love story has nothing new to offer but seeing as I think Beijing Rocks is more aimed at younger audiences, the characters consciously aren't overly complex as written. It's a story of fighting, fighting to be heard and fighting to make the outsiders understand. That's certainly a theme that young people can relate to more and maybe, just maybe, they aren't that critical of the film. They might catch some subtext those of us past childhood are missing.

Maybe in an effort to reach the kids even more, Mabel and DP Peter Pau have created a very stylized look to the film. In certain moments there's almost a hyper kinetic feel to the way scenes are shot, which I didn't like but I guess a movie about music sometimes have to look like an MTV video. Sad really. I did like some of the slow motion used but even that got taken a few notches too far. The calm and minimalistic direction seen later in the film and in previous Mabel Cheung movies works so much better and I wish they had dared to do that from the beginning to end. Peter Pau's cinematography is gorgeous to look at though when it's calm though.

The actors also find their flow at the same time as director Cheung and Shu Qi almost single handedly saves the movie on an acting level. She plays the girl clinging one to the one she thinks is forever right for her but befriends another one, hence the triangle drama. Not that Shu takes the character to new undiscovered levels but her smile is enough to charm us. Sweet, adorable and displaying a good amount of emotions and, again, she is a very big reason why Beijing Rocks becomes a worthwhile experience.

Daniel Wu displayed pretty good acting chops in the 1999 movie Purple Storm but has not been part of that many good projects since then. This movie, despite its flaws, is probably the best I've seen him do after Purple Storm. As you may know, Daniel was born and raised in America so Cantonese is not his first language. With Beijing Rocks he had to challenge himself even more because this is largely a Mandarin speaking role. I can't really tell you how good or bad he speaks the dialect but thankfully he doesn't flip flop between his Chinese and English like he did in Gen-X Cops. In terms of acting he pulls off the character decently and one thing to remember is that Daniel is still learning. He's not there yet but there's undeniable talent in that boy, just have to found more good roles on a regular basis. Mainland actor Geng Le has a few nice scenes, especially in the section where he leaves his band and in a rare drama performance we see Richard Ng.

Mabel Cheung's Beijing Rocks has a basic structure that sadly blooms very late. It becomes a decent film in the end but there's no denying the weaknesses present. Have patience and you'll see that you get into this romance, mostly because of Shu Qi, eventually.

The DVD:

A nice 1.78:1 anamorphic print from Megastar. Grain is present in some shots as well as some light speckling. Other than that, it's a great transfer.

The Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 track uses your entire setup to involve you. Music plays a big part and that sounds clear and so does dialogue. The movie was shot in Mandarin synch sound with only limited use of Cantonese.

The English subtitles contains no errors as far as I could see and Megastar provides subtitles for the songs featured as well. In one scene however concerning SMS messaging, the text is shown a few seconds before we see it on screen. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also provided.

There's slightly more extras on this Megastar disc than your usual Hong Kong dvd, main one being the alternate ending (4 minutes 8 seconds). It's more of an extended one really and while interesting, it puts a spin to the end that I didn't really like. Kudos to Megastar for presenting this segment in anamorphic widescreen and English subtitles (burned in).

The Making Of & Trailers area is pretty self-explanatory. The teaser and theatrical trailer is here plus a 17 minute 48 second Making Of (no English subtitles). A music video for, what I assume is, the nominated song appears but it consists only of movie clips. The rest of the bonus material is text based starting with the synopsis screen that is also on the back cover. Casts & Credits holds a listing for the most essential cast & crew with short bios/filmographies for Alex Law, Mabel Cheung, Daniel Wu, Shu Qi, Geng Le and Peter Pau.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

Thanks to Liersi for providing the Chinese title of the nominated song.