The bicycle may not be the preferred method for residents of Western countries to get around these days, but it's still a crucial cog in the transportation system of many Eastern countries.

It's also been an integral plot device in several acclaimed films. For instance, it served as a method to bring Sundance (Robert Redford) and Etta Place (Katharine Ross) closer together in 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and it propelled the storyline of Vittorio De Sica's 1949 drama "The Bicycle Thief."

The Chinese-language import "Beijing Bicycle" has a lot more in common with the latter film. In some ways, its plot is eerily similar, although there are some obvious cultural differences that allow this character drama to differentiate itself.

And even though the film is occasional overwrought — in particular, its ending is a little too over-the-top for the good of the movie — this well-acted piece is of interest for its rather subtle examination of Chinese class distinctions.

As for the film's title, it refers to a state-of-the-art mountain bike that's been given to Guei (Cui Lin), a teen who has just landed a job as a delivery boy. But it's not a freebie. In fact, he's expected to use most of his first few paychecks to purchase the vehicle from his employers.

Guei's just about to have that debt settled when the bike disappears — while he's in the midst of a disastrously bad delivery. Not too surprisingly, his boss is thinking of canning the unlucky youngster for bungling the job. However, the rather stubborn teen promises to find the bicycle if he can have one last chance.

That task is, of course, easier vowed than done, especially in a city with so many residents. And what Guei doesn't know is that his bike has turned up — a schoolboy, Jian (Li Bin), is using it to woo a fellow student (Zhou Xun). A friend of Guei spots Jian using the bike, but Jian's not willing to give up the two-wheeler, and push comes to shove when the two teens can't come to some sort of compromise.

Despite its resemblance to De Sica's Italian-language classic, the film recalls even more strongly the early works of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (the film's jazzy score is reminiscent of "Chungking Express").

But the storyline — co-written by director Wang Xiaoshuai and three others — is a great deal more straightforward and played with more of a straight face.

And the lead actors, both of whom are television stars in their home country, offer believable performances. (Though, of the two, Li's acting may be more impressive because his character is less sympathetic.)

"Beijing Bicycle" is rated PG-13 for violence (beatings, a bludgeoning and a vehicular accident), scattered use of strong profanity and brief male nudity. Running time: 113 minutes.