Beijing Taxi director Miao Wang.
By Don Simpson
Born and raised in Beijing, Miao Wang moved to the United States in 1990. Now a filmmaker, Wang’s 2006 documentary short film, Yellow Ox Mountain, and her first feature, Beijing Taxi, are stories of what it means to be Chinese in the modern world told from the perspective of someone who is both and insider and outsider.
China is an enigma to most of the western world, and Wang’s goal is to humanize China and highlight the commonalities between Chinese people and the western world. On the surface, Beijing Taxi is a chronicle of the effects that the 2008 Olympic Games (and capitalism) had on working class Beijingers; but Beijing Taxi’s three subjects (Bai Jiwen, Wei Caixia and Zhou Yi) also reveal that the everyday working class struggles in China are no different than those in the western world.
I caught up with writer-director Miao Wang in Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest where Beijing Taxi screened thrice to exuberant capacity crowds.
JEsther Entertainment: Does the Chinese government know anything about Beijing Taxi?
Miao Wang: I frankly don’t know. I don’t think I was on their radar. Most documentary filmmakers in China that I’ve talked to don’t work above the radar. Once you’re on their radar, they monitor everything you do. You just never know what they are going to think is sensitive and what’s not. It seems totally arbitrary to me. Especially since I don’t even live there, I’m not as aware as the people who live in China as to what are the super sensitive…words. It can just be a word that they don’t want to use to describe themselves. So, yeah, I tried to avoid being on their radar. Until they figure it out, I’ll try to avoid being on their radar for as long as I can. The film is not hyper-political. It’s not really dealing with a specific issue. I really wanted the film to just show Chinese people’s lives. These characters are just like any other human beings. They’re just trying to make it and figure out how to survive in a society that’s changing.
JE: How did you meet the three primary subjects?
MW: I just rode a lot of taxis during my first trip in November 2006. I would just chat with the driver for the duration of the cab ride, which often could be pretty long because you always get stuck in traffic. I would take a cab to different destinations every day, which also helped me figure out the layout of the city. I followed five or six different people at the beginning. I wanted to have each person lay out different elements and discuss different social commentaries. That’s why I initially picked Wei -- mainly for her family life and shifting ideas about marriage, values and tradition. From the very beginning she was very outspoken about wanting freedom and I could relate to that. I live a free person’s life. I’m a freelancer and I don’t abide to anyone’s schedule and I think that’s what she wants. That’s not really something that’s achievable in China, but there are some people who live like that. She sees some people with that lifestyle but she doesn’t have the education or the skills to be able to function independently. Then, Bai, I wanted him to show the difficulties that the older generation has had to deal with. It’s a very different experience than Zhou, who is more just like an old Beijinger. He just wants to have an easy life. I really wanted Zhou to show those old Beijinger qualities and the leisurely lifestyle. He could come off as a total slacker but at the same time its kind of nice…and Zen.
JE: How did you come upon the concept of using taxi drivers to tell this story?
MW: Right before I started working on Beijing Taxi, I had finished a 30-minute documentary short film [Yellow Ox Mountain]. I decided that I really wanted to make a film about Beijing to document the changes going on in China right before the Olympics. I could have waited, but I felt like I had to start right way. It was a crucial time and I felt like it was a time that really needed to be documented. I was chatting with one of the artists from Yellow Ox Mountain -- he grew up in Beijing -- about how taxi drivers are so gregarious. There are always stories about taxi drivers. So, that led me to think that I should make a film about taxi drivers. It would up being such a great visual device, being able to show Beijing from the point of view of the taxis. Since the very beginning it was a common thread between the characters. I didn’t want to make a film about the taxi industry. I didn’t want to explain things, I just wanted to show the characters lives.
JE: Are any of the subjects of Beijing Taxi channeling your opinions on China?
MW: Obviously. In every documentary it is decided in the editing room what to include. Everything is subjective even when it attempts to be objective. But I really wanted to show different opinions, which does reflect my opinion because I believe more in the gray areas than the black and white. I wanted to show how there has been a lot of progress in China. The tour guide on the bus at the end of the film really captures how I feel about China. China is so much about contradictions right now. It’s not perfect and it’s not horrible. Too often it’s portrayed as one extreme or the other. In western media you always hear about the bad things; of course they are all happening and they need to be recognized and addressed. I live in the West and I don’t see anything about China that shows real people. There is no connection between the people in China and the western world. Whenever you think of China, you think of this “idea” almost. But then there’s the Chinese media, which portrays China as perfect. They want to only show their representation of beautiful, which I find silly because sometimes if they would just show the reality people would make more connections to the images; whereas, if you show only the glittery images then the West will think that China is just spreading propaganda. I’m trying to balance the different perspectives. The three characters talk about how their lives have definitely improved. I grew up in China when it was very poor -- you didn’t have enough food to eat, you had to worry about the necessities in life. But now you don’t have to worry about the necessities in life as much, though life has become a lot more complicated. I have certain nostalgia for China’s “innocence” during communist times. Everyone was equal, though equally poor, but it wasn’t the ideal communism where people would be equal in wealth. Everything has changed and China has become privatized and the inequalities are so vast.