Chen Kaige’s nearly 20-year career has been marked by several high points representing various forms of extremity. His 1993 historical epic Farewell My Concubine garnered international acclaim, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes (still the only Chinese-language film to do so.) Some five years later, another epic, The Emperor and the Assassin, became the most expensive Chinese film ever made (it’s since been surpassed many times over.)
Yet Chen has rarely found success when he ventures outside the realm of fantasy or historical fare and engages with contemporary reality. With the Chinese film industry now fully entrenched in the model of big-budget, high-technology spectacle, his most recent film, Caught in the Web, attempts to set itself apart through a modern, urban setting and a plot that ostensibly turns on the hypocrisies created by social lives outsourced to the internet. Its central event occurs when the beautiful, unfortunate Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), who has just been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer, coldly refuses to give up her seat on the bus to an elderly man, ignoring the pleas and reprobation of her fellow passengers. An upstart reporter named Jiaqi (Wang Luodan) and her footloose cousin Shoucheng (Mark Chao) also happen to be present; when Jiaqi takes footage of the incident to her boss, Ruoxi (Chen Yao), who runs a modest-sized news program, it ends up splashed all over the web.
The incident isn’t severe enough for its aftermath to make sense to American audiences, but it has the secondary effect of illuminating the uneven positions of women in Chinese society. Four of the six major characters are women, of varying ages and levels of professional success, and it seems deliberate that they’re the ones faced with the most challenging moral conundrums. In comparison, the young and handsome Shoucheng is mostly passive when he’s not exhibiting his leading man prowess by running or punching someone, and Mr. Shen (Wang Xueqi), the powerful executive who involves himself in the scandal when he gives Lanqiu a large sum of money, is an emotionally distant paean to male stoicism. As the principal actors respond to Lanqiu’s overnight fame with censure, sympathy (“This society’s a pressure cooker,” offers Mr. Shen amiably) or salivating opportunism, the film creates an effective portrait of the lurching dissension a viral event can create.
But when you try to more closely examine the film’s morality, it doesn’t hold up quite so well. Part boy-girl buddy caper, part emotionally saturated melodrama, and part lite social commentary, Caught in the Web is a durable, well-shot film with a strange lack of emphasis. Our female protagonists are rewarded and punished unevenly, and each person’s relative importance is dependably tied to their level of wealth or physical attractiveness — towards the end, when Jiaqi experiences some good luck, her appearance shifts suddenly from bespectacled, banged and bubblegum-chewing to sleek and glasses-free. During a few anomalous action sequences, the camera work is startlingly elegant — we see a nearly silent on-foot chase from the side and then from below in long, measured sweeps — but the editors seem to have run into problems in post-production. There are jarring, obvious cuts that interrupt the dialogue in a few scenes, indicating that perhaps there were other, more egregious problems that needed to be covered up.
It’s an issue that extends outwards into the rest of the film: with each moment of incongruence, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to the action (Why, for instance does ambitious worker and caring girlfriend Ruoxi end up jobless and alone? And where does something like the strange Bucket List-like bungee jumping scene fit into Chen’s vision of dubious morality?). Scenes that might have been charming on their own, like a wine-fueled bonding session between Ruoxi and the lonely Mrs. Shen, become lost in the uncertainty of the larger arc, and by the time the final events fall tragically into place, it’s difficult to pinpoint their significance in the bog of melodramatic consequence.
It’s worth noting that China, frequently a hotbed for censorship issues, is currently embroiled in a tactical war on microbloggers. In that context, the film seems like a pale attempt to situate internet chatter as a threat to the young and beautiful, obscuring the interest the government may have in suppressing liberal voices. At the very least, it’s certainly a limited view of the issues technology poses in contemporary society. Its generality makes it potentially appealing to American studios looking to mine foreign markets for awards-bait fare that engages with a young and progressive demographic, and with a little surgery, a remake could work. But the minor successes in Chen’s film come from depicting humans interacting with humans, not humans reacting to tech phenomena, and as such the emotional payoffs, however universal, feel a bit misleading.