Caught in the Web: Internet Shaming Goes Wrong

Caught in the Web

Runs Fri., Dec. 6–Thurs., Dec. 12 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 117 minutes.

The title promises another tired warning about the Dangers of the Internet, and so does a thumbnail description of the plot: A young woman is rude to an elderly gentleman on a bus, the incident is filmed on a cell phone, and when the video goes viral, it leads to serious problems for her and the people in her life. Undeniably, Caught in the Web is about this surveilled aspect of modern life, and maybe the Chinese authorities who approved the movie liked the cautionary tale of the risks associated with freewheeling cyberspace.

Funny thing is, the film itself is less a wag of the finger about the online arena than a slice of life in contemporary China. It depicts a cold world of corporate skullduggery and media opportunism—which makes you wonder whether veteran director Chen Kaige might’ve been sneaking his disenchanted portrait past the powers that be. A member of the breakthrough “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, Chen’s output has been maddeningly inconsistent, ping-ponging between arty triumphs (Yellow Earth) and Hollywood-style melodrama (Farewell My Concubine), all the while negotiating the complex business of being an artist in China. If Caught is no classic (the musical soundtrack is notably poor, for instance), it is nevertheless a lively outing in this director’s career.

The woman on the bus is Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan, from City of Life and Death), and the reason she’s so rude is that she’s just received a grim cancer diagnosis. Drawn into the fallout from the viral video are her reptilian boss (the terrific Wang Xueqi) and his high-living wife (Chen Hong), both of whom are allowed more color and complex motivations than we might initially assume. An ambitious reporter (Yao Chen) and her boyfriend (Mark Chao) round out the key circle of players—there are enough rich characters and cross-purposes to stretch this premise out into a couple of seasons’ worth of a cable-TV series. Lanqiu’s diagnosis forestalls that idea, and also leads the movie toward a sentimental conclusion, but not before Chen has lifted the lid on a particularly nasty group of vipers. Forget the trendy cyber-subject: This is an old-fashioned, and clear-eyed, view of choices and consequences.

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