by Kevin Ma:
|An Internet video ignites a saga of ambition and media manipulation in Chen Kaige's Caught in the Web. Following Chenís filmography of grand period epics, an intimate father-and-son story and a universally lambasted fantasy extravaganza, Caught in the Web a not a story that one expects Chen to tell. However, the veteran director, who also co-wrote the script (adapted from an Internet novel), is clearly having fun stretching his creative legs with this complex, intricately woven ensemble piece.
Caught in the Web starts with a small incident: Ye Lan-Qiu (Gao Yuanyuan), a secretary for powerful businessman Shen Liu-Shu (Wang Xueqi), is told at a routine medical check that she is showing symptoms of terminal cancer. Still in shock, Lan-Qiu refuses to give up her seat on the bus to an elderly man and is verbally accosted by fellow passengers Ė an incident captured on camera by Yang Jia-Qi (May Wang), an ambitious intern at a local television station.
The video is passed on to Jia-Qi's producer Chen Ruo-Xi (Yao Chen), who is also the live-in girlfriend of Jia-Qi's unemployed cousin Yang Shou-Cheng (Mark Chao). After the video is featured in a news report, Lan-Qiu becomes public enemy number one thanks to the power of the Internet. Like any Internet villain, her real identity is eventually discovered by netizens, and the subsequent fallout - including Liu-Shu's wife Xiao-Yu (Chen Hong) taking her mistaken suspicions of an extramarital affair between Lan-Qiu and her husband public on a news talk show - nearly derails an important business deal for Liu-Shu. Meanwhile, Lan-Qiu runs away after taking a huge loan from Liu-Shu and hires Shou-Cheng to be her bodyguard after Jia-Qi sets them up. Still following? There's a quiz later.
Despite being the center of the storm, Lan-Qiu and her new-found notoriety arenít the focus of Caught in the Web. Instead, the film is mostly about the public relations battle between Ruo-Xi and Liu-Shu. Chen, himself a victim of cyber-bullying after The Promise, seems more interested in exploring how the media and the audience can be manipulated to serve the agenda of the manipulator. An ambitious producer aiming for the stars, Ruo-Xi wants to take down Lan-Qiu and Liu-Shu to continue her sensationalist story. Ironically, Liu-Shu fights back with the same media manipulation techniques in order to make sure his deal goes through and Ruo-Xi gets her just desserts. The power brokering and the strategies used by both sides Ė portrayed as a cynical satire on the Chinese media climate - are by far the most riveting sections of the film.
Chen, however, juggles too many balls, constantly shifting the focus between the media power struggle story and the relationship between Shou-Cheng and Lan-Qiu. By the second half, the film becomes mired in exposition, as Chen struggles to give each character equal emphasis. Just as the core story begins to build dramatic momentum, the film quickly shifts back to the romance, which takes place almost completely independent of the main plot. Thereís rarely a dull moment in Caught in the Webís 121-minute running time, but much of that is because Chen constantly bombards the audience with plot.
Despite being at the center of the storm, Lan-Qiu is, ironically, the most detached character of the film. Gao is forced to maintain a poker face for most of the film, depriving the audience a chance to understand Lan-Qiuís psyche. In the end, even her reason for not giving up her bus seat - arguably the most important event of the film - is never clear. Whether Chenís decision to keep Lan-Qiu enigmatic is intentional or not, it takes much-needed insight away from the filmís timely themes.
Caught in the Web lacks the gravitas and payoff to make it comparable to Farewell My Concubine or even Sacrifice, but itís undoubtedly one of the most entertaining films in the veteran directorís filmography. Chen skillfully elevates the urban melodrama to a wickedly entertaining satire with solid performances by some of Chinese cinemaís best actors (Wang Xue-Qi, Yao Chen, and Gao Yuanyuan are especially good). Even if Chen is punching below his weight, Caught in the Web continues a fine return to form for a director that has done far worse. I, for one, am grateful for that. (Kevin Ma, 2012)