A box-office hit in its home country, Chen Kaige’s Caught In the Web centers on Ye Lanqiu (Yuanyuan Gao), a young executive secretary who ignites a media firestorm when she’s caught on camera acting disrespectfully to an elderly man — refusing to give up her seat on the bus, sarcastically offering to let him sit on her lap.
As the video goes viral, the movie traces the fallout for Lanqui as well as for her boss, Shen Liushu (Xueqi Wang), and the two journalists who aggressively pursue the story, Yang Jiaqi (Luodan Wang) and Chen Ruoxi (Chen Yao).
The film’s primary interest is in how technology has allowed what might once have been minor embarrassments to turn into full-blown scandals. But what’s most compelling about Caught In the Web — for a bit, anyway — is how it touches on a subset problem of our camera-happy culture: Lanqiu’s unfortunate behavior isn’t the callousness of a terrible person, but the understandable result of a bad mood on a worse day. And where some real-life figures of note have blamed their failings on “drunken stupors,” Lanqiu’s explanation — ignored in the media circus that results — is one meant to be taken seriously: She has just been diagnosed with advanced lymphatic cancer.
But Lanqiu’s illness, unfortunately, is also the first sign of trouble for a film that never quite settles on a mood. Despite the heaviness of her diagnosis, Caught In the Web displays an appetite for satire from the start. Even taking potential cultural disconnects into account, the reaction to Lanqiu’s rudeness seems farcically overblown, with memes and internet rage piling up and the whole city debating questions of privacy and proper manners.
There are cartoonish moments that further help cast the film as a send-up. But a string of increasingly intricate conspiracies involving Lanqiu’s boss and the journalist Ruoxi feel like something out of a thriller. Meanwhile, in the background, the story of Lanqiu’s illness plays out; she hires Yang Shouchen (Mark Chao) to help her avoid the media frenzy and takes off on a bucket-list adventure suffused with romantic sentimentalism. After an hour or so, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing whether to laugh, cry or be morally outraged.
There’s a stiffness to the actors’ performances that reinforces the film’s ambiguous tone. And Chen’s use of jump cuts is jarring and arbitrary, their ubiquity upping the ante on the film’s already tiring hyperactivity.
You could argue that Chen’s style, and his decision to slide between widely divergent genres, are meant to mimic the bombardment of images and other inputs we face on a daily basis, and the attention-deficit disorder we supposedly suffer from as a result. But that would be a leap beyond the limits of charitable thinking: Caught In the Web is shallow thinking wearing its convoluted execution like a mask.