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In Caught in the Web, director Chen Kaige updates the high-energy brushstrokes of his sweeping historical epics like Farewell My Concubine to describe the modern intrigues of Internet rumor-mongering and office politics. In this fast-moving, densely plotted black dramedy, a faux scandal raised by an ambitious web TV editor comes close to destroying a number of lives, offering a masterful panorama on urban, middle class China. Toronto should be just the first port of call on a long festival voyage, with some crossover into the niches.
The popularity and dangers of Internet discussion boards hardly seems like the kind of thing that would spark the interest of the master of Asian costume dramas set in yesteryear. Yet in his third film with a contemporary setting, Chen effortlessly spins out his familiar themes of scandal, love, power, role-playing and betrayal in a society now dominated by the media and technology. In this sleek modern China, everyone’s out to get something from somebody, selfishness is the rule and “only the mentally ill tell the truth.” The screenplay, co-written with Tang Danian (Beijing Bicycle), is intricate but never confusing and filled with complexly drawn characters, particularly women. Its only real misstep is the dark, sentimental ending, which doesn’t hit quite the right note.
One morning in a big city, a young woman learns she has lymphatic cancer and must be operated on within a week. Shocked by the news, Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan) is so preoccupied that on her way to work she refuses to give up her bus seat to an old man and reacts rudely to protests from the other passengers. Unknown to her, cub TV reporter Jiaqi (May Wang) is filming the scene on her cell phone. She proudly presents it to her editor Ruoxi (Yao Chen), who knows a good thing when she sees it, and sends it viral on the net, igniting what comes to be known as “the Sunglasses Girl scandal.” Thanks to a jealous, ambitious co-worker, Lanqiu’s identity is revealed on the web and she is forced to go into hiding. Even the company she works for suffers, as the whole country moralistically shakes its head over her shameless arrogance on the bus.
In truth, Lanqiu is the reserved executive secretary of Mr. Shen (Wang Xueqi), the wily old company president. Uncharacteristically, she bursts into tears in his private office while asking for a loan (for the operation), just as Shen’s wife Mo Xiaoyu (actress and producer Chen Hong) walks in. She misreads the scene entirely and decides to take revenge on the two “lovers”, as subtly and cruelly as a poisoning at court. Still, she has her own backstory and a terrifying master-slave relationship with Shen that partly exonerates her.
She gets in touch with Ruoxi, who is a ruthless and stupidly ambitious young woman, yet also sports a human side. Ruoxi is dating Jiaqi’s hot brother Shoucheng (Mark Chao) and the three of them share a rented apartment, while Ruoxi dreams of making it big so they can buy a bigger place to live.
Shoucheng is a photographer who still has some ethics intact. When his path crosses Lanqiu’s, she offers to hire him for one week, basically to protect her from herself. He cautiously agrees, knowing she’s the victim of an outrageous Internet smear campaign that could lead her to suicide, but not knowing that she’s ill. Naturally, he has to hide the gig from his girlfriend, Ruoxi. She finds out.
Only a top-drawer cast could individualize all these characters. In the main role, the ethereal Gao Yuanyuan (City of Life and Death) is so noble and refined she’s almost a fantasy figure, though she’s unpredictable enough to keep the appealing Chao guessing as her temp bodyguard. He gets to kick up his heels in a playful martial arts fight; she terrifies him in a mini-car chase. They’re cute characters and their inevitable romance has all the more impact for being handled delicately.
The other notable acting pair is the rich Mr. Shen and his trophy wife, always at each other’s throats. Wang Xueqi’s Shen is delightfully cunning and cynical, though he’s a tyrant to his wife. She gets pay-back when she calls Ruoxi for a private chat, but in the last scenes, Chen Hong’s dignity earns respect.
Fast-paced and beautifully shot by Yang Shu, the story is told in theatrical spaces, through curtains and doorways, and inside soaring glass and stone buildings in which all traces of the past have been erased. Meng Ke and Ma Shangyou’s score is varied and touching.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 10, 2012.
A New Classics Media presentation of a 21 Century Shengkai Film production in association with Ningbo Radio & TV.
Cast: Gao Yuanyuan, Yao Chen, Mark Chao, Chen Hong, Wang Xueqi, Wang Luodan, Chen Ran, Zhang Yi, May Wang
Director: Chen Kaige
Screenwriters: Chen Kaige, Tang Danian
Producer: Chen Hong
Executive producers: Cao Huayi, Chen Hong, Wang Ziwen
Director of photography: Yang Shu
Production designers: Gao Yiguang, Tu Nan
Costumes: Sawataishi Kazuhiro
Editor: Li Dianshi
Music: Meng Ke, Ma Shangyou
Sales Agent: Moonstone Entertainment
No rating, 121 minutes.
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