An engrossing if lengthy social drama in which a woman’s minor public misconduct plunges her into a dragnet of cyber-witch-hunting that unseats relationships, careers and a business empire, the punningly titled “Caught in the Web” reps a thought-provoking, character-driven morality tale by Chinese helmer Chen Kaige. Despite a bewildering nexus of parallel plots and discussion-worthy ideas, Chen and co-scribe Tang Danian adopt accessible narrative techniques that are emotionally invested in protags who shift roles as hunter and hunted. Sadly, this detour from the current trend of period or action epics is unlikely to break out past Chinese-speaking, Asian-friendly ancillary.
Riding the bus to work, her mind preoccupied over having been diagnosed with cancer, Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan) ignores the plea of an old man (Chang Baohua) to give him her seat, incurring the wrath of other passengers. Her haughty retort is caught on camera by cub TV reporter Yang Jiaqi (Wang Ludan) and her cousin Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao).
Lanqiu,executive assistant to tycoon Shen Liushu (Wang Xueqi), asks him if she can take a leave of absence. When he notices her distress, he reaches out to comfort her — at the very moment his wife, Mo Xiaoyu (Chen Hong), barges into the office.
Reporter Jiaqi hands over the footage of the bus incident to Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen), editor of social affairs at Dragon TV, and Shoucheng’s live-in g.f. Ruoxi uses it to stir up a public scandal in cyberspace. Lanqiu hires Shoucheng to be her bodyguard as she tries navigate her multiple crises. Meanwhile, Liushu sets a trap for Ruoxi.
It’s gimmicky to pit this unlucky scapegoat against the sanctimonious tyranny of a cybermob and the intrusiveness of a voracious media, but Chen doesn’t limit himself to chewing over trendy issues, choosing instead to cast his thematic net wider to explore the tensions and empathy across classes and genders that give rise to the complexity of urban existence in China.
As Ruoxi tells Jiaqi, “the truth is puzzling. Everyone has a different perspective” — a point the film makes by letting all six protags air their mutual grievances. None of them acts on innocent impulse or a single motive. As they weigh their desires against temptations and compromises, each protag illustrates the social realities bemoaned by Ruoxi: “money can’t buy love, yet love can’t buy a home.”
Perfs by a cast made up of the top names in film and TV in China vary in pitch and don’t always gel in the ensemble scenes, but individually, they radiate feisty personality.
As the unapologetically Machiavellian tycoon, Wang Xueqi rules the roost with a perf so smooth, he’s irresistibly charming even at his most ruthless. Chen Hong, sensitively calibrating the pic’s most developed role, makes her conflicted values on money and love feel genuinely agonizing, and elicits sympathy whether she’s meekly accepting humiliation or shrewishly standing her ground.
Following a string of lightweight screen appearances, TV thesp Yao Chen, known as “Weibo Queen” (after China’s version of Twitter), summons the necessary intelligence to make Ruoxi likable despite the character’s self-centeredness. Gao portrays her damsel-in-distress with the brittle, cold beauty of a porcelain doll, so that it’s clear the hostility against her is partly provoked by jealousy.
Tech credits are extremely slick without being splashy. Upscale urban spaces shot in Ningbo city are made to look soulless and uninviting, whereas scenes in the countryside open up on vistas of verdant and burnished colors. Music is peppy, but smacks of a tacky ’90s beat.