By Gabe Toro | The Playlist December 7, 2013 at 1:04PM
There have been scads of books and movies and essays written about truly knowing and understanding people in the modern world, walking a mile in their shoes, etc. Chen Kaige, the critically acclaimed director of "Farewell My Concubine," weighs in on this topic in the gaudy melodrama "Caught In The Web" as such: you can't really know anyone in the modern world. More specifically, you can't know Ye (Yuanyuan Gao), an office worker who receives news that is beyond unfortunate from her doctor: she has thirty days to live before succumbing to cancer.
What Ye does next is either understandable, contrived or maddening, depending on whom you ask. While riding the bus, she refuses to give up her seat to an elderly man. When he asks to set himself down, lost in her thoughts, she rudely rebuffs him. As an American, the cultural exchange seems a bit unusual: this happens on our trains every day. In fact, the rules of etiquette seem like blurred lines: the man is, after all, capable of carrying himself, and it's customary for men to allow women their seat. Furthermore, anyone else on that bus could have offered their seat to the man as well. What's captured is the woman's sarcasm, mixed with the fact that she doesn't even look in his direction, hiding underneath a pair of sunglasses.
A video of the event is taken by Yang (Luodan Wang), a young wannabe reporter who sees this viral video as her big break. Unfortunately, the credit goes to her flatmate, and the girlfriend of her cousin, Chen (Chen Yao), who gets the footage on air and turns "Sunglasses Girl" into a national menace. Blogs and news sources immediately turn their attentions towards this woman, savaging her in the predictable ways, with anonymous messages, blogs, and inevitably hyper-reactive death threats and slander. Soon, her identity is revealed, and she becomes a social pariah: Kaige's shots of her staying home in her bathrobe, constantly refreshing web pages to find new vitriol, depict her as if she were a monster locked away in a dungeon.
"Caught In The Web" grows slack as its premise evolves, which is unfortunate because it's easy to see the conflict ripe in her corporate culture. A clumsy moment with her boss is seen by his wife, and within days the media is reporting on her status as a "homewrecker." The executive has a few uncomfortable moments regarding this confusion, but ultimately he dismisses Ye. That callousness has teeth: the subplot involving the tension between himself and his wife, does not.
Eventually, it's not even clear if this film is about Ye or not. A multi-strand narrative works for something like this, even though it sinks dopier, similar stories like this year's "Disconnect." But Ye is a mask of a personality: when she recruits Yang's cousin Shoucheng (Mark Chao) to assist her in her final days, it isn't clear as to whether it's a doomed romantic setup, a friendly reach for assistance or a desperate cry for help. He's mostly occupied with the drama in his apartment, as Yang and Chen war over who has the rights to the video, the story and ultimately the perception of Ye in the media.
Chao himself is a handsome presence, and you'd like to know more about Shoucheng's story. In one moment, his anger over losing his phone becomes a matter of reputation: the inappropriate pictures located therein could shame the women depicted; but not him, of course. When he unleashes a flurry of violence upon finding who stole the phone, it's seen as a just act, one that suggests overt masculinity as acceptable, even when people are hurt, while red-flagging Ye's conditional "rudeness." That itself would have been an interesting direction to pursue, but, given the film's glossy sheen, Kaige is interested in a more populist "I'm ok, you're ok, technology is the devil" message. [C]