Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web

It is the age of the internet troll.  Abetted by the tabloid press, anonymous malcontents offer a steady stream of bullying invective aimed at impulsively chosen targets.  In this case, the locale is central China, but it could happen here too.  One woman is tragically ensnared in a joint new media-old media feeding frenzy at the start of Chen Kaige’s of-the-moment contemporary drama Caught in the Web (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

During a routine check-up, Ye Lanqiu receives some devastating news: advanced lymphatic cancer, requiring immediate treatment she cannot afford.  Dazed, she returns to work on the bus, not noticing the old man coveting her seat.  When he complains, she tells him where to get off.  Unfortunately, it was all captured on the smart-phone of Yang Jiaqi, who is interning at a television station with her cousin’s ambitious girlfriend, Chen Ruoxi.  By the end of the day, Chen will make Ye notorious as “Sunglasses Girl.”

However, Ye’s problems are only getting starting.  Seeking a loan and an emergency leave from her industrialist boss, Shen Liushu, Ye breaks down before she can fully explain her dire circumstances.  At the worst possible moment, Shen’s high maintenance wife Mo Xiaoyu walks in on them, naturally misconstruing the intimate scene.  As Ye becomes a public pariah, Mo pours gasoline on the fire, antagonizing her husband and jeopardizing his big deal with an American firm.  While Shen and Mo wage their cold war and Chen bottom feeds, Ye goes into hiding, hiring her nemesis’s increasingly disillusioned boyfriend Yang Shoucheng as her bodyguard.

Whew, end of set-up. From there things get complicated.  Chen and his co-screenwriter Tang Danian have scripted the closest thing to a Chinese Tom Wolfe story you will find, chocked to the brim with intertwined characters and loads of zeitgeisty angst.  At times, they flirt dangerously with shameless melodrama, but the quiet dignity of Gao Yuanyuan’s lead performance saves their bacon every time.  It is a reserved, but deeply tragic turn, nicely matched by the restraint of the Taiwanese-Canadian Mark Chao as her reluctant protector, Yang Shoucheng.

In contrast, Chen’s frequent collaborator Wang Xuegi and his actress-producer-wife Chen Hong produce some spectacular fireworks as the crafty old Shen and his impulsive wife.  Perhaps fittingly, Chen Ruoxi is played by Yao Chen, who holds the distinction of having the most followers on China’s micro-blogging service, Sina Weibo.  She has also “Weiboed” on behalf of journalists challenging official state censorship, which makes her massively cool as well as popular.  She really digs into the character, portraying both her ruthless ambition and her deep-seated insecurities.  It is award caliber work that truly makes the film.

Cinematographer Yang Shu (an alumnus of Chen’s Sacrifice) gives it a slick, austere polish that well suits the in-the-now class conscious morality tale.  It is a relatively rare contemporary piece from Chen Kaige, but he adroitly manages the large ensemble and keeps the complex proceedings moving along at a healthy clip.  Thanks to Yao and Gao, Caught has real dramatic force, as well as a real message.  As long as the media focuses on the next “Sunglasses Girl,” they will ignore more inconvenient stories for the powers that be. (That applies beyond China too—just compare the coverage granted the Kardashians to analysis warning of the millions of individual insurance policies that will be canceled under Obamacare.)  Highly recommended both for fans of Chinese films and those who appreciate shrewdly observed social cinema, Caught in the Web opens today (11/27) in New York at the Village East.