A DVD Playlist for Running through Beijing by Xu Zechen
So you may have heard that we’ve got a new book flying out into the world in just one week. It’s called Running through Beijing and it’s our very first title from China. It’s all about the life of a young migrant who makes his living by selling pirated DVDs on the streets of Beijing. As it turns out, this sort of work gets you into a lot of things, some legal, some not, but most existing somewhere in between.
As you might expect, there’s a lot of cinema in this book. And, interestingly, there’s a lot of Chinese cinema that deals with similar subject-matter to Running through Beijing—young man immigrates from the provinces to the capital, does what he has to in order to survive, meets all sorts of other outsiders along the way.
So what we decided to do was to make a sort of DVD playlist to accompany Running through Beijing. Some of these films are actually in the book, and some of them are great material to watch alongside a reading of the book. Here they are, along with our pithy summaries, and some clips to give you an idea of the action.
Together by Chen Kaige
A young violin prodigy makes a journey common to the migrants featured in Running through Beijing—from the provinces to China’s capital—finding shockingly different
values and lifestyles. Fascinatingly, though this film was made just six years before Xu wrote Running through Beijing, the two Beijings in each are remarkably different.
Spring in a Small Town by Fei Mu
Running through Beijing’s protagonist (and pirated-DVD entrepreneur extraordinaire) Dunhuang supplies some students with both the original and the remake of this venerated classic of Chinese cinema. Released in 1948—just one year before Mao changed China forever—this family saga makes a fascinating counterpoint to Xu’s frenetic, urban world.
The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio De Sica
This canonical Italian neo-realist film is routinely ranked among the greatest movies ever made. It plays a several small but important roles in Running through Beijing: first when Dunhuang buys it as a pirated DVD (impressing his eventual girlfriend), then later when he sells it to film students, and then when—surprise, surprise—he gets his bicycle stolen.
Beijing Bicycle by Wang Xiaoshuai
Frequently known as “the Chinese Bicycle Thief,” Wang’s breakout film is almost too on the nose when it comes to similarities to Running through Beijing. The kid who comes to Beijing; the stolen bicycle; the desperate search for work . . . The film is slower than Xu’s book and not as funny, but what can you expect? It’s Chinese independent cinema.
Run Lola Run by Tom Tykwer
Beloved by film students for its time-twisting plot (Dunhuang makes a grip of money supplying a class with just this movie), and starring the flame-haired Franka Potente, Lola became both a popcorn cinema legend and a critical darling, racking up 26 international awards. Dunhuang himself starts resembling Lola as he takes to scrambling through Beijing.
The World by Jia Zhangke
As does Running through Beijing, Jia Zhangke’s first hit nails Beijing as a place, plus it gets China’s larger yearning to be part of the world. It’s set in the trippy Beijing World Park, which includes replicas of the World Trade Center, Eiffel Tower, and Taj Mahal. Be sure to also check out Jia’s Still Life, Taste of Sin, and 24 City.
Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal
This documentary showcases China’s amazing, immense factories and the mammoth infrastructure that serves them. Like no other film on China, this one reveals the truly gigantic proportions of the economy that provides the world with much of its consumer goods—it puts the pirated-DVD “factory” that Duahuang visits into perspective.
Lost in Beijing by Li Yu
Another nice take on the underbelly of migrant worker life in Beijing, this one with plenty of sex in it. Two couples of very different social status become entangled, first sexually, then criminally. As with a lot of great art, this film was eventually banned in China—make sure you find the version that screened in Germany!
Cell Phone by Feng Xiaogang
Two relationships go awry when two wives make shocking discoveries on their men’s cell phones. As with Running through Beijing, the film dissects the role consumer technology continues to play in revamping China—the commercial and critical success of both speak volumes about just how hard this hits home for many Chinese.
Last Train Home by Lixin Fan
This documentary follows the lives of two of the 100+ million migrant workers who head home every year for Chinese New Year. Estimated as the world’s largest human migration, it’s a spectacle made up of people like Running through Beijing’s Dunhuang: they’ve left their families—and much of their identity—back home.