Since making an ill-fated attempt at Hollywood with 2002’s Killing Me Softly, Chen Kaige has slipped further and further out of relevance. Now even his elegant sense of style—the one thing keeping later efforts like Forever Enthralled afloat—seems to be slipping away.
Case in point: Chen’s new film, Caught In The Web, a sappy mix of issue drama, social satire, and tragic romance, in which a businesswoman named Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan) becomes the subject of widespread public scorn after refusing to give up her bus seat to an older man. The incident—captured on a cellphone video that goes viral—attracts attention to Lanqiu’s boss, Shen (Chen regular Wang Xueqi), whose wife takes advantage of the situation to shame her husband, whom she suspects of having an affair. The movie is plotted like a plate of spaghetti, with long and limp noodles of plot—many of them involving the personal lives of the reporters investigating Lanqiu’s life—wrapping around each other to form a messy tangle. Quantity, not quality, seems to be Chen and co-writer Tang Danian’s goal.
The result is a “how we live now” ensemble piece that is neither emotionally nor socially credible. For all of its musings about the impact of social media on modern lives and relationships, the movie subscribes to the half-real movie version of technology, where search engines make bleeping-blooping noises and computers instantly switch to full-screen video when you plug in a USB drive. That’d be fine if the film weren’t also wallowing in cardboard characterizations (see, for example, Shen’s wife) or cheap bathos. The reason Lanqiu doesn’t give up her seat to the older man is because she’s just learned that she’s dying of lymphoma, a disease whose main symptom appears to be an air of tearjerker sadness.
Most disappointingly, the film displays little of the sense of craft that’s usually distinguished Chen’s work. The handling of the multiple narratives is uneven, with the most emotionally difficult material given short shrift while other scenes—like the many meetings between Shen and a prospective Western business partner—overlinger. Compositions, usually Chen’s strong suit, err on the side of bland competence, doing little visually aside from placing two people on opposite ends of a widescreen frame. Contributing to the movie’s scattershot, secondhand vibe is the overwhelming impression that it was temp-tracked to the Kill Bill soundtrack, with sound-alikes for the Twisted Nerve theme and the 5,6,7,8s’ cover of “Woo Hoo” recurring throughout.