Shady activities and everyday injustices perpetrated by the Chinese government are given a mostly listless look-see in “Trap Street,” a well-lensed but dramatically underpowered writing-directing effort from mainland producer Vivian Qu (“Night Train,” “Knitting”). Hinting at a world of secrecy and intrigue lurking just behind official barriers, this blend of Nanjing-shot noir adopts a low-boil observational approach to the tale of a naive Chinese teenager whose flirtation with a mysterious young woman leads him into hot water, striking an uneasy balance of restrained realism and standard crime-story elements. Still, artful digital cinematography and fine performances augur well for Qu’s future efforts after this one has made its way through the usual festival channels.
The title refers to an old cartographer’s trick of drawing a road that does not exist, thereby protecting their work from theft should the “trap street” appear on competing maps. Qu’s film cleverly inverts the meaning of the term, repeatedly circling a side street, Forest Lane, that does exist, but that suspiciously never appears on any official maps of the area. Young Li Quiming (Lu Yulai) soon discovers this during his part-time work as a surveyor for a digital mapping company, a job that requires him and his co-workers to drive around and keep their systems up to date by taking photos of the continually shifting city. (Heightening the general atmosphere of surveillance and paranoia, Quiming also has a job installing security cameras.)
Early on Quiming has a chance encounter with Guan Lifen (He Wenchao), an attractive, well-dressed young woman to whom he gives a lift one night; the next day, he finds her business-card holder in his backseat and takes it upon himself to return it. When it develops that Lifen works at a building on the undocumented Forest Lane, Quiming’s interest and libido are both piqued, and the two slowly begin a relationship that will clearly lead them down a dark road or two of their own.
Attractively shot on HD by cinematographers Tian Li and Matthieu Laclau, “Trap Street” has a low-key perceptiveness, an eye for narrative digressions that often prove more compelling, or at least diverting, than the story itself. In scenes of Quiming and Lifen riding bumper cars or casually dancing at a party, the film pulses with a sweet, youthful energy that works despite the inherent implausibility of these two individuals getting together — an implausiblity that the plot will presumably dispel at a certain point, but never does. Qu sticks closely to Qiuming’s perspective, revealing only what he sees and following him into a situation that eventually takes a nightmarish turn, but leaving hidden the full shape of whatever conspiracy he has inadvertently stumbled on.
There’s something to be said for Qu’s scrupulous avoidance of easy explanations or trumped-up melodrama; in one sense, the understated menace of Lifen’s supervisor (an excellent Liu Tiejian), smiling and faux-avuncular on the two very different occasions Qiuming meets him, tells us all we need to know. The notion that any unsuspecting, unexceptional young person could find him- or herself in Qiuming’s position comes across clearly enough in this deliberately modest, uninflected portrait of China in the information age, but the suggestion that there are countless such stories out there has the inevitable effect of dissipating the viewer’s interest in this particular example.
Lu is fine as the overly passive protagonist, while He (a filmmaker in her own right, having directed, written and edited 2012’s “Sweet Eighteen”) does a lot with a little in the quietly reserved femme-fatale role, drawing on the viewer’s sympathy, wariness and curiosity.