Director: Chen Kaige
Starring: Yao Chen, Gao Yuanyuan, Mark Chao, Wang Xueqi, Chen Hong, Wang Luodan
Beautiful and successful, Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan) finds her world shattered when she is diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. Leaving the doctor’s office, she heads to work on the public bus transit and, in a moment of unfeeling, refuses to relinquish her seat to an elderly rider. As the event unfolds, she is recorded by an aspiring reporter, Yang Jiaqi (Wang Luodan), who is also taking the bus with her cousin Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao). Delivering the video to her boss, and cousin Shoucheng’s girlfriend Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen), the following news story becomes a viral hit. Vilified overnight, Ye goes into hiding but through odd circumstances comes to employ Shoucheng as an assistant to help her with tasks that her newfound celebrity status make difficult on her own. As Chen and Jiaqi work angles on the story which has captured the city’s imagination, Shoucheng finds himself drawn to the mysterious Ye, who herself refuses to reveal to anyone her illness.
Master director Chen Kaige directs this contemporary dramedy about modern technology, privacy, paranoia, relationships, and public shaming. Known primarily for his work in period and costume dramas, director Chen revisits again the contemporary setting to deliver a finely acted drama, with bits of sweet humor, and some truly cutting social satire. With more than a bit of humor, the events on screen unfold in a somewhat dry but clever bit of comedy that doesn’t get guffaws per say, but adds brief moments of levity in a film about cancer and online witch-hunting. Never out of place it is a brilliant melding of the two that genres that rarely flow as easily together as in this picture. With his keen eye, trademark ‘Chen-isms’ are evident; the use of reflections, beautiful wide angle shots, and his ability to extract some really terrific work from his actors.
Gao Yuanyuan is absolutely great as Ye Lanquiu. She plays her character, that of a woman facing terminal illness, with immense grace and a quiet strength that is natural and wholly mesmerizing. I was quickly reminded of the great performance by Lee Young-ae in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in terms of screen presence and tone, minus all the violence and revenge. It is a star-making role to be sure and I was riveted by it. Mark Chao turns in a solid performance as Shoucheng, an honorable sort mixed up with his girlfriend Chen and the alluring Ye. He seems to continuously be playing catchup however as he finds himself caught between the strong female characters of Ye and his girlfriend Ruoxi.
As Ruoxi, Yao Chen provides a look at career centered youth in China who have a desire to elevate their standing by nearly any means necessary. There is a point in the film where the ideals she spouts seem to be oft used buzzwords which go by the wayside when it is discovered that the story is much closer to her than she would like. Sympathetic initially, she also becomes a victim, somewhat in the way Ye does, as the truth comes into the open and her privacy becomes secondary to the story. The rest of the cast as very good as well, with Wang Xueqi as Ye’s boss given ample screen time to chew up scenery and prove again why he is one of China’s best character actors. Chen Hong also turns in a nuanced performance as Xueqi’s character’s wife who mistakenly believes that he and Ye have been in an illicit affair. As beautiful and polished an actress as ever, I always welcome her presence in a film.
Photography is stunning with natural lights and city fluorescent mixed in to create some great shots. The picture has a warm and very human quality to the cinematography which comes naturally and easily. DP Yang Shu melds expertly with Chen Kaige’s direction. The music was actually a point of contention for me. Composer Ma Shangyou re-purposes a few songs popularly used in the Kill Bill Vol. 1 soundtrack, notably “Twisted Nerve” and “Woo Hoo”. They took me out a bit and I much prefer the original compositions by Ma for the rest of the film.
In the end, Caught in the Web is a phenomenal drama that features some powerhouse performances. In a film that puts the whole of connected society in the mirror, Chen proves again that he is among the world’s elite directors and still a very important voice in Chinese media. A bit on the long side, the film nonetheless is tightly packed with story, nuance, and a true sense of reality which is made even more powerful by the film’s, not unexpected, but still moving finale. Definitely see this film.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: Failan, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and/or Happy Times
Special Thanks to Moonstone Entertainment for providing a viewing copy of the film!