Caught in the Web 搜索
Contemporary black comedy-drama
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 121 mins
Directed by Chen Kaige (陳凱歌)
By Derek Elley
Sun, 15 July 2012, 18:00 PM (HKT)
Chen Kaige's superbly crafted drama about internet and media abuse has a cast at the top of its game. Asian events, plus festivals attracted by Chen Kaige's name.
A city in central China, the present day, Monday. Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), personal assistant to tycoon Shen Liushu (Wang Xueqi), founder of elite executive training company Si-Atomic Education, is told she has signs of lymphatic cancer and must check into a hospital in seven days. Without medical insurance, the cost of her treatment will be prohibitive, and Lanqiu fears she is going to die. Preoccupied on her way to work, she refuses to give up her seat on a public bus to an old man (Chang Baohua) when asked to, and a row breaks out in which Lanqiu acts arrogantly. By chance, the event is videoed by Yang Jiaqi (May Wang), an intern reporter on a news show at Dragon TV whose editor is Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen), the girlfriend of Jiaqi's cousin, Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao). All three share a modest flat together. Ruoxi decides to broadcast the material that day. Meanwhile, Shoucheng, who works as a cameraman for a wedding planning company, quits his job after a row at a wedding over the fraudulent cost of the event. Arriving late at work, Lanqiu asks Liushu for emergency leave and breaks down in front of him. By chance, Liushu's wife, Mo Xiaoyu (Chen Hong), walks in on them and thinks they are having an affaire. Overnight, the TV broadcast goes viral, provoking an internet storm about the decline of modern manners. Next day, Lanqiu tells Liushu she needs RMB1 million (US$150,000) to "save a friend", and Liushu transfers the money to her account. Meanwhile, Lanqiu's ambitious deputy, Tang Xiaohua (Chen Ran), discloses Lanqiu's identity on a discussion board and, just prior to a crucial meeting of Liushu with a US businessman (David Peck) over a large contract, Xiaoyu phones into the TV programme anonymously and accuses "the woman who wouldn't give up her seat" as her husband's lover. Lanqiu, who has gone into hiding, records a public apology for use on Dragon TV. Afterwards, she offers the indebted Shoucheng RMB60,000 if he will accompany her secretly for the next week. As Lanqiu continues to be savaged on the internet, Ruoxi decides to target Liushu and his supposedly "ethical" company. Liushu, who blames his wife for harming his company, decides to fight back, and sets an elaborate trap for Ruoxi.
Slickly mounted, snappily written and with a quality cast at the top of its game, Caught in the Web 搜索 continues the belated revival of veteran director CHEN Kaige 陳凱歌's career following his involving costume drama Sacrifice 趙氏孤兒 (2010). Chen has come late in the game to dealing with the social and ethical contradictions of life in modern-day China, but Web more than makes up for lost time. Densely plotted across its two hours' running-time, the film starts as a black comedy on the destructive power of modern media (especially China's internet discussion boards) but from its midway point gradually morphs into a complex web of love and ambition, both gained and lost. Despite a slight stumble in its closing stages, the multi-character drama ends on a strangely moving note during the final minutes: the audience is left with the feeling of having traversed a whole series of lives caught in a particular moment of time.
Amazingly, Web is only the third of Chen's 15 features to be set in the present day, following the London-set mystery-thriller Killing Me Softly (2001) and the China-set weepie Together 和你在一起 (2002). It's also not the first Mainland movie to deal with character assassination on the internet: WANG Jing 王競's offbeat mystery Invisible Killer 無形殺 (2009), coincidentally also shot in Zhejiang province, is the most notable earlier example. But Chen's script, co-written with TANG Danian 唐大年 (Zhang Yuan's Beijing Bastards 北京雜種 (1993) and Green Tea, plus director of first-love drama Young and Clueless 青春期 (2006)), goes way beyond its initial set-up. Here, the web and the media are just the instruments with which human flaws are exposed, not the guilty parties per se. Chen and Tang seem to be saying that their characters are simply victims waiting to be sacrificed, whatever the means and whatever the circumstances.
Teaming again with Sacrifice's versatile d.p. YANG Shu 楊述 (Peacock 孔雀 (2004), One Foot Off the Ground 雞犬不寧 (2006), The Equation of Love and Death 李米的遭遇 (2008)), Chen conjures up a varied, autumnal look in which settings define their characters: the cramped, crowded flat of a news editor, the cool modern offices of a tycoon that's full of mirrors, and the deluxe, Regency-style look of his and his wife's home. On top of these foundations, and working for the first time with editor LI Dianshi 李點石 (Guns and Roses 黃金大劫案), Chen spins a fast-moving, complex opening in which the main characters' lives are thrown into a vortex one Monday morning by a tiny event (an argument in a public bus) that would have been forgotten had not a rookie reporter videoed it.
From this small beginning there fans out a story that involves the wealthy tycoon, his money-loving wife, a woman who thinks she's about to die, and the ambitious news editor, among others. The way in which the script juggles all its character threads on an equal level is just one of its pleasures. But apart from the sheer structure of the film, the dialogue remains sharp and pithy, the tempo finds time for moments of introspection as well as snap-and-sizzle, and the cast never seems like puppets of the director, even though Web is very much a writers' movie.
Veteran WANG Xueqi 王學圻, who first worked with Chen on the latter's first feature, Yellow Earth 黃土地 (1984), and dominated Sacrifice as a peerless power-player, hits just the right note of black comedy as the "ethical" tycoon who manages his marriage with as much ruthlessness as his business. He's well paired with CHEN Hong 陳紅 (director Chen Kaige's actress-producer wife) as his lucre-loving spouse who finally rebels. In a savvy piece of casting, actress-comedienne YAO Chen 姚晨 — who also happens to be China's microblog queen, with over 22 million followers — is especially believable as the news editor whose quiet zeal for a good story leads her to cross the line. As her unambitious boyfriend, Taiwan's Mark CHAO 趙又廷 (Love 愛, First Time 第一次) redeems his wooden performance in action-thriller Black & White Episode I: The Dawn of Assault 痞子英雄首部曲：全面開戰 with a relaxed, likeable performance, pairing comfortably with both Yao and GAO Yuanyuan 高圓圓 (Romancing in Thin Air 高海拔之戀Ⅱ) as the two very different women in his life, one embracing life and the other rejecting it. Among the others, China's "It-Girl" CHEN Ran 陳燃 is memorable in her first leading role, as the tycoon's ditzy but sly secretary.
Though Gao's character is the pin in the story's grenade, it's also the least clearly delineated and the hardest to get a grip on, deliberately shot and lit apart from the main cast. The script also dots its "i"s and crosses its "t"s too methodically in the final stages: one speech at the end by the intern reporter (kooky May WANG 王珞丹) to her boss (Yao) seems especially redundant. With 5-10 minutes trimming, mostly in the latter stages, Web would be almost perfect; as it is, it's a very very good movie in a very very good year so far for Mainland cinema.
Though the film is set in central China (the unidentified location is actually Ningbo, south of Shanghai), it has a curiously northern feel in its look, dialogue and characters, like all of Beijing-born Chen's movies. In this respect, it could just as well have been set in the capital. The Chinese title is the term for "search", as in "search engine".
ContactSales: Moonstone Entertainment, Studio City (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theatrical release: China, 6 Jul 2012.
Presented by New Classics Media (CN), 21 Century Shengkai Film (CN). Produced by 21 Century Shengkai Film (CN), Ningbo Radio & TV Group (CN). Executive producers: Cao Huayi, Chen Hong. Producer: Chen Hong.
Script: Chen Kaige, Tang Danian. Photography: Yang Shu. Editing: Li Dianshi. Music: Meng Ke, Ma Shangyou. Song: Li Jian. Production design: Gao Yiguang, Tu Nan. Art direction: Wang Xiaowei, Zhang Liang, Zhang Tao. Costume design: Sawataishi Kazuhiro. Sound: Li Wen, Gu Changning. Action: Dee Dee Ku. Visual effects: Yan Ning. Computer effects: Yan Ning. Video photography: Chen Zhoufei. Executive director: Chen Feihong.
Cast: Gao Yuanyuan (Ye Lanqiu), Wang Xueqi (Shen Liushu), Chen Hong (Mo Xiaoyu, his wife), Yao Chen (Chen Ruoxi), May Wang (Yang Jiaqi), Mark Chao (Yang Shoucheng), Chen Ran (Tang Xiaohua, Liushu's assistant p.a.), Zhang Yi (Zhang Mu, Liushu's deputy), Chen Feihong (office cleaner), Liu Yihao (Xiao Cui, housekeeper), Yuan Weijie (doctor), Chang Baohua (old man on bus), Hong Ying (bus conductress), Yu Ailei (thief), Zhou Mingshan (water seller), Ma Weifu (groom's father), Zhang Dali (bride's father), Fei Yang (wedding MC), Tian Wa (groom), Tang Ya (bride), Jiang Yongbo (wedding company boss), Zhao Ningyu (Lü, TV station head), Su Ni (Yi Yi, TV presenter), Xu Chengxian (Chinese-style expert), Tan Fei (western-style expert), David Peck (Stone), Kara Wang (Wang, his interpreter), Joe Anhalt (Stone's colleague), Guo Wenxue (Cao, manager), Liu Guohua (watch shop manager),Yang Qing (Zhang Lingshuang), Xu Dexin (web expert), Huo Qing (Zhang, manager), Zhang Wenbai (Hu Zi, Ruoxi's colleague), Peng Xiuping (housekeeping company head), Seven Tan (young housekeeper), Zhang Shuai.