Beijing Taxi paints a portrait of the Chinese metropolis following those who literally roam through its urban-political metamorphosis on the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics. This quick-paced documentary focuses on three cab drivers struggling to survive what the Chinese government tries to sell as progress and what most people on the ground seem to experience as a kind of slow metaphysical death.
These drivers, constantly on the move, are, ironically, made stagnant witness to the bullet-train of “modernity” as it runs over the country they once knew. Since they are told by the State that some will just have to get rich first, while others can join later (if they have skills), the subjects of the film try to keep up and prepare themselves to the rich foreigners who are sure to flood Beijing. One cabbie listens to English tutoring audio in the car, another one tries to open her own business, but their attempts at jumping on new China’s bandwagon will mostly prove futile as they see modernity’s promises of deferred bliss slip away from their not-so-young bodies. It turns out they might be too old to wait for their turn.
Although the film can feel a little emotionless, director Miao Wang has an emblematic metaphor in her hands as most of its cab drivers’ time is spent running around awaiting the illusive customer’s hailing that never really materializes (one of the few times it does, the customer is a dark-skinned Anglo-Saxon speaking fluent Mandarin). The relationship between modernity and futurity, of course, is no Chinese invention. The justification of today’s misery and tragedies (several construction workers died in preparation for the Olympics) in the name of some gilded tomorrow that never really comes has fueled the history of urban development in the rest of the world. Beijing Taxi, then, is a record of a historical process that “the West” has come to take for granted, though it has borrowed many of the techniques of destruction and deception—often times in somebody else’s land—just the same. “China is like this. First they destroy, then they regret, then they repair and build again” is how one disillusioned cab driver puts it.
These kinds of flanêurs frozen in bewilderment are both spectators and subjects of this traumatic paradigm shift being sold as forthcoming dream. They try to hold on to tokens of a past, claiming that very common rhetoric of post-communist nostalgia: They didn’t have steel-framed stadiums with hotels and shopping malls inside, but everybody had food on the table. One of the most striking shots in the film shows a wall in a driver’s home filled with picture frames turned over, the photographs facing the wall. All we can see is the wooden backs of the frames. The taxi driver claims his family misses those inside the photos too much to bear looking at them. As if perusing a wall filled with modernity’s corpses, he then proceeds to flip the frames over and say a word or two about the people inside. It turns out some of them are still alive. It’s perhaps safer to lay low and play dead until the dust settles.