Chinese director Chen Kaige’s latest film "Caught in the Web", which opens Jan 3 in San Francisco at Landmark Theatres, is a chronicle of our times with participants of a corporate sponsored culture characterized by the flood of communication through cell phones, laptops and tablets, the spread of instant photographs, videos and chatter and corporate sponsored friendship clubs on the internet. Sounds familiar? Certainly not here in the social media prime turf of San Francisco subsidized by generous government tax breaks.
Chen Kaige directed "Farewell My Concubine" in 1993, a brilliant epic drama on the end of the Peking Opera and a friendship between two actors that endures 50 years up until the reign of Mao Tse Tung and the repressive Cultural Revolution. The film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes that year. Kaige who is considered a representative director of the Fifth Wave of Chinese cinema following the end of the Cultural Revolution, graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 1982 like his colleague Zhang Yimou.
The pivotal story in "Caught in the Web" is about Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), a 30 year woman who is filmed with a cell phone by the young Yang Jiaqi (Luodan Wang) when she refuses to give up her seat for a senior. The bickering behavior on the bus is indicative of informants during the Cultural Revolution who spied and ratted on their neighbors, or on any day on the San Francisco MUNI. This is something Kaige has never forgotten who was pressured by school authorities to condemn his father, a noted filmmaker, as a creator of subversive art. He was confined to a re-education camp and only allowed to return home once a week but never made another film again.
Ye, whose outstanding characteristic is her beauty, wears dark sunglasses and immediately becomes typecast as spoiled and self-indulgent. Chinese social media channels milk this story produced by the filmmaker's older sister Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen) till it goes viral and it becomes a topic of conversation everywhere and enriches the coffers of corporate owned microblog networks.
We learn early on that Ye had just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer before getting on the bus and was in her own world. Later she asks her boss Tang Xiaohua (Ran Chen) for an advance "to save a life" and begins to cry, and as he comforts her his wife Mo Xiaoyu (Chen Hong, Chen Kaige's wife) walks in unannounced. She is convinced the two are together and that story goes viral too. Yao Chen's boyfriend Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao) is then paid by Ye to protect her and is the only one who knows the real story.
Social media usage is higher than anywhere in the West in the former People's Republic of China with more than 513 million "netizens" and 300 million microbloggers since 1994 with little government censorship. It is just as scary to see how people seem to misuse their intelligence in this country as elsewhere around the world through addiction to shallow communication via electronic instruments. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are blocked in China, but as can be seen in "Caught in the Web" the Chinese equivalents are out there - Youku, Qzone, Tudou, RenRen, Sina Weibo, Dianping and Douban.
"Caught in the Web" is told in the characteristic epic style that Kaige is known for with abundant scenes made with excellent continuity editing, great ensemble acting, and compelling dramatic development.
This is China’s contribution to the foreign language category of the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, 2014. If it does win, it will be because the Academy understands that "Caught in the Web" is really a horror story, an indictment of today’s junk social media culture and how so many people are slave to it economically, professionally, socially, and culturally. This is a couple of generations who have spent significant formative years often without the benefit of great literature, the opera, the great outdoors, travel and adventure, and provocative face2face gatherings of people communicating. Instead they have willingly provided play-by-play descriptions of their lives to strangers that provide the same and are considered their "friends".
"Caught in the Web" is about the zapping of intelligence and real communication and the enmeshment of vital humans in an electronic web of meaningful nothingness.