×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘Trap Street’

Vivian Qu makes a well-lensed but dramatically underpowered debut with this low-key noir.

With:

Lu Yulai, He Wenchao, Hou Yong, Zhao Xiaofei, Xiang Qun, Liu Tiejian, Li Xinghong, Liu Tong, Feng Shijie, Wang Jiao, Jin Liao, Sun Si, Ma Guoha, Li Youliang.

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.

Popular on Variety

Venice Film Review: 'Trap Street'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week), Sept. 1, 2013. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.) Running time: 93 MIN. Original title: "Shuiyin jie"

Production:

(China) A 22 Hours Films production. (International sales: 22 Hours Films, Beijing.) Produced by Sean Chen. Executive producers, Ying Hua, Chen.

Crew:

Directed, written by Vivian Qu. Camera (color, HD), Tian Li, Matthieu Laclau; editor, Yang Hongyu; art director, Liu Qiang; sound, Zhang Yang; visual effects, Zhouren (Beijing) Culture Communication Co.; assistant directors, Ji Jiatong, Diao Dingcheng, Meng Huohuo, Xia Hao.

With:

Lu Yulai, He Wenchao, Hou Yong, Zhao Xiaofei, Xiang Qun, Liu Tiejian, Li Xinghong, Liu Tong, Feng Shijie, Wang Jiao, Jin Liao, Sun Si, Ma Guoha, Li Youliang.

More Film

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Dances Toward $32 Million Opening Weekend

    “Hustlers” is eyeing the biggest opening weekend ever for STXFilms, following a Friday domestic ticket haul of $13.1 million from 3,250 theaters. If estimates hold, the stripper saga could take home around $32 million come Sunday, marking the best live-action opening of Jennifer Lopez’s career. “Hustlers” follows a group of former strip club dancers, led [...]

  • Hustlers intimacy coordinator

    Meet the Stripper Consultant Who Gave 'Hustlers' Authenticity, Dignity and Sexual Freedom

    At last week’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Hustlers,” an audience of Hollywood heavyweights and Canadian locals applauded as a statuesque woman strutted on stage, rocking six-inch platform heels and a pastel tie-dye bodysuit. This adoration was not for stars Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu or Keke Palmer, nor was it for the film’s acclaimed writer-director [...]

  • Kristen Stewart

    French Director Olivier Assayas Pays Tribute to Kristen Stewart at Deauville

    French director Olivier Assayas paid tribute to Kristen Stewart, whom he directed in “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” at the Deauville American Film Festival on Friday evening. Stewart received a honorary award in Deauville before the French premiere of Benedict Andrews’s “Seberg” in which the actress stars as Jean Seberg, a French New [...]

  • Liam Gallagher: As It Was

    Film Review: 'Liam Gallagher: As It Was'

    Liam Gallagher is nearly as fascinating a rock ‘n’ roll figure as he thinks he is … which is saying a lot. After the breakup of Oasis, one of the most self-avowedly arrogant stars in pop culture found himself severely humbled, fighting to become relevant again without the help of Noel, his ex-bandmate and, for [...]

  • The Vast of Night

    Toronto Film Review: 'The Vast of Night'

    It’s the first high school basketball game of the season and all of Cayuga, N.M., population 492, is cheering on the Statesmen at the gym. Except for the town’s two brightest kids, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who are strolling through the empty darkness to their respective jobs as a radio DJ and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content