Chinese director Chen Kaige is a veteran filmmaker and no stranger to U.S. fans of foreign language cinema. He’s been directing features since 1985 and even scored two Oscar nominations for his 1993 film, Farewell My Concubine. His career since has been somewhat eclectic with the standouts being a handful of epic period pieces (The Emperor and the Assassin, The Promise, Sacrifice) filled with martial arts, doomed romance, and gorgeous visuals. The less said about his singular foray into Hollywood the better.
His latest film sees a young woman lost in her own issues unknowingly cause an incident that rattles the fragile social mores of those around her. Her transgression goes viral, streaming across the airwaves and internet, and while it marks her as a pariah, it also sets in motion a chain of events in the lives of several other people. A single act, a multitude of ramifications.
Caught In the Web races into the present with a contemporary tale that uses our addiction to social media, the 24 hour news cycle, and the ease with which society rushes to judgement, to examine the current state of the human condition. And, failing that, the film essentially points out that when given the opportunity, most people will prove themselves to be selfish twats.
Ye Lanqiu (Yuanyuan Gao) is a beautiful, professional young woman who works as an executive assistant for powerful CEO Shen Liushu (Xueqi Wang). A visit to her doctor’s office results in a devastating diagnosis, and lost in her shock, she refuses to give up her seat to an old man on her bus ride home. Passengers berate her, and the incident is filmed by an aspiring television reporter who passes the footage to a TV producer. Soon “Sunglasses Girl” is the talk of the town and the focus of spirited conversations and commentaries. Some support her decision, but most view her as all that’s wrong with modern Chinese society.
Just as the video goes viral online, the ripples of Ye’s action affect the lives of those who inevitably become a part of the story. Shen finds his marriage threatened when his wife sees him comforting Ye. The TV producer Chen Ruoxi (Chen Yao) pursues the story with such vigor that it begins to threaten both her career and her relationship with Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao). While everyone dances around the woman at the core of it all, Yang is the only one to actually go toe to toe with her as he’s drawn into Ye’s life when she hires him to watch over her for a week.
Kaige, who also co-wrote the script, prepares viewers for Ye’s story only to gently redirect her towards the back of the picture. She’s never forgotten completely, but what starts as the central narrative soon becomes one of many. Instead we get relationship dramas, a brief foray into corporate mergers, and observations on how highly we value our phones and the right to judge. Oddly, we also get a brief, well choreographed fight sequence.
These individual story strands vary in quality and relevance, but they’re never boring or dull thanks to solid acting and Kaige’s occasionally frenetic editing choices. The film’s two hour run-time flies by as we bounce from character to character and watch their various machinations fall into place or fall apart. Their commonality is kicked into gear by Ye’s action on the bus and fueled by their own selfishness as they all attempt to benefit from someone else’s indictment in the court of public opinion.
Ultimately though, the film is at its best in its Sweet November moments with Ye and Yang building a bond atop half-truths and desires. Gao handles scenes of early bitchiness well but excels as the far more fragile woman beneath the bluster and behind the sunglasses. Her story’s the simplest of them all, and the film would have benefited from shedding the white noise of those around her to simply focus on her journey from pariah to martyr.
Like a caterpillar transforming into something completely different, Caught In the Web begins life as a cautionary tale about a world where privacy and second chances are in short supply before shifting into something far more traditional. More flutterby than butterfly, the parts don’t quite come together as well as you’d hope, but it still manages to draw the eye as it struggles to get off the ground.
The Upside: Consistently engaging; well-acted
The Downside: Narrative is messy at times; not always wise to move away from central character to follow other threads
On the Side: This is China’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s 85th Annual Academy Awards.