Non-fiction filmmaker Miao Wang was fortunate enough to be at a critical place during a critical moment. She was in Beijing in the months leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and her feature documentary Beijing Taxi looks at the massive transitions the city goes through, as well as the major implications of the event on a global scale, from the perspective of the city’s taxi drivers. It’s an interesting perspective to take on a defining event, for sure. It’s an event that needs recounting and coverage in the medium of film, for it will serve as a decisive moment of indication for whatever it is that China will become in the proceeding years. Unfortunately, it is our immediate, urgent desire to see a great documentary related to this event that makes Wang’s approach so apparently lacking. Beijing Taxi is a documentary that never really decides what it wants to be and how it intends to focus on the subject, even under the appropriation of limited paradigm of perspective (i.e., the taxi drivers) necessary to pursue a subject of such a daunting scale.
Beijing Taxi does provide a few compelling revelations of a nation so palpably undergoing a massive process of transition being witnessed and thought over by the rest of the world. Films like this could serve as an important historical document in the future, exhibiting part of the process of this critical national transition and exhibiting the symbolic display of power articulated through the 2008 Olympic games. If Beijing Taxi has a shelf life of any sort, it will be years from now as China’s continued rise as a world superpower will likely enable the 20/20 perspective of hindsight, framing the film and its implications within the recounted narrative of a nation’s inevitable historical trajectory. The construction of the Olympic facilities and the increasing traffic within Beijing serve as an effective analogy for China’s growth and the growing attention being given to the nation. Also interesting is the film’s exploration of China’s important capitalist function within a communist governance. What China will become, the film seems to suggest, is neither communist nor capitalist, but something different altogether. And the spectacle of the Olympics itself is once again overwhelming, but this time being framed through the little-seen perspective (in western media, at least) of national pride amongst the common Chinese people.
But where the film lacks is in its methodological and narrative focus on the fascinating subject at hand. The film never comes across as containing a perspective unique to the taxi drivers themselves, one that we couldn’t have received elsewhere, with Chinese embodying different occupations of societal roles. The why is never answered. Wang attempts to justify this chosen perspective through occasionally (or, rather, sporadically) lending her lens to the personal and family lives of the taxi drivers, but this exposure never accentuates anything already known, and the film never immerses itself into a thorough examination of their lives. What we get in the end is an unhappy medium, as Beijing Taxi dips its toes into several interesting subjects worth a documentary all their own, but remains too reluctant to dive all the way in.