Film Review: Caught in the Web

Broad, whimsical Chinese rom-com about an attractive young on-the-rise executive secretary whose illness and wheeler-dealer boss unintentionally send her into social (and traditional) media hell. Knotty plot, slick production, attractive cast and abrup

Chen Kaige, who created a splash with the 1993 Palme d’Or Cannes winner and Oscar-nominated art-house hit Farewell My Concubine, makes an aggressive leap and sharp turn into the 21st century with Caught in the Web. Very similar to any number of fast-paced Western European comedies that mainly target easy-to-please locals, the film is a dramatically charged but light trifle that shows off a shiny, modern Shanghai peopled by mostly young, ambitious, upwardly mobile and prosperous souls eager to leverage the perks of advanced capitalism and ever-advancing technology.

But Caught, not a great bet for any significant box-office action, is caught between what might have been a draw for more discriminating art-house crowds (especially Concubine fans) and viewers (Chinese Americans, especially) out for light entertainment with a difference and a twisty, often complicated story. As levelFILM is a new Toronto-based distribution company, it does have the advantage of Canada’s large Asian population and that of many millions of Asians stateside who could be ensnared into this Web.

The “Web” of the title, while signifying heroine Ye Lanqiu’s (Gao Yuanyaun) dilemma, also denotes the Web. Although it’s an ensemble effort, Ye, an executive secretary who sinks into deep stress after learning she has advanced cancer, is the film’s connective tissue. On a bus ride immediately following the grim news of her diagnosis that requires she soon check into a hospital, she denies an elderly man a seat. Her minor transgression becomes major stuff after young TV reporter Yang Jiaqi (Wang Luodan) records the incident on her smart-phone and it becomes a news story before migrating to the Web and snowballing into a sensationalistic social-media phenomenon.

Further aggravating Ye’s situation and blowing it out of proportion is the innocent, comforting hug she gets from her prominent master-of-the-universe CEO boss Shen Liushu (Wang Xueqi) after she requests a sizeable loan from him without disclosing the reason and betrays much grief without further explanation. Shen’s big-spending wife Mo Xiaoyu (Chen Hong) mistakes the kind gesture for a romantic encounter.

Out of spite and also because her husband has cut off her excessive credit card use, Mo exposes what the thinks is her husband’s secret affair. And the case against Ye grows in the media. Shen, however, seems more interested in closing a big buyout deal that will make his corporation an international giant.

It was Yang’s boss at the TV station, Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen), who was responsible for getting Ye’s bus story on the air. Chen also happens to be the girlfriend of recently unemployed Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao), who is Yang Jiaqi’s cousin. The three share an apartment. Coincidentally, the two cousins were on the bus together when Yang started it all by capturing Ye’s denial of the bus seat.

The plot is further entangled when Ye decides to disappear, taking with her the money Shen had lent her and hiring Yang as her assistant in these final days before entering the hospital. Ye keeps the secret of her diagnosis and Yang keeps the gig with Ye a secret from his lover Chen. Meanwhile, Chen bonds closely with pampered wife Mo as they enjoy upscale restaurants and fine wines together. As Ye’s notoriety grows, she and Yang bond just as problems emerge with Shen’s big business deal because of the scandal.

What gives Caught in the Web its originality is a final act from left field that radically shifts both mood and tone of this soufflé. The film played out of competition at Cannes this past spring and might have had many Cannes regulars, especially Chen Kaige’s European director colleagues, slapping their foreheads over how Western the Concubine director appears here and over the film’s jolting final act. But energetic and easy on the eyes, Caught is more baffler than bust. And a bow to the triumph of the modern Western ways that are driving China and Chen Kaige.