Continuing China/Hong Kong Month here on the Loud Green Bird blog, we consider a recently produced film from China, “Caught in the Web” (Chinese: 搜索; pinyin: Sōusuǒ – 2012). The U.S. poster for the film makes it appear (likely for marketing purposes) like a techno-thriller:
Although technology is the trigger for the conflict that grows to immense proportions in this film’s story, “Caught in the Web” is, at heart, a romantic drama based on that classic trope, the love triangle. Thus, this Chinese movie poster is much more accurate:
Directed by Kaige Chen (“Farewell My Concubine”), the film’s premise has to do with the Social Web of the Internet, no doubt. However, it also deals with the older, but still powerful, web of conflicting emotions that links people together in real life. It also delves into the conflicts that play out on both webs due to the clash of old and new: old and new cultural traditions, old and new societies, and old and new relationships between people.
As one can surmise from this ambitious list of themes, “Caught in the Web” attempts to cover a lot of ground. As a matter of fact, it requires almost two hours of runtime to capture its main story arc and associated subplots. To tell the truth, it could have benefited from a more ruthless editor. However, within this film is a core romantic drama that is definitely a winner.
“Caught in the Web” – Story
The story’s setting is modern-day Hangzhou, China. It centers on Ye Lanqiu (Yuanyuan Gao), the executive secretary and personal assistant for corporate CEO Shen Liushu (Xueqi Wang). At a routine insurance physical, Lanqiu finds out that she has advanced lymphatic cancer. Her doctor tells her she must enter the hospital for treatment within a week. Distraught on the way from the doctor’s office to her workplace, she refuses to give up her seat on the bus to an elderly man. The other passengers shame her. Enterprising media intern Yang Jiaqi (Luodan Wang) takes the opportunity to capture video of the incident on her mobile phone. Her supervisor and roommate, Chen Ruoxi (Chen Yao), uses the footage for a story on her media company’s television news show. It goes viral and creates a firestorm of criticism for Lanqiu.
Before the story breaks, Lanqiu breaks down in tears in Shen’s office. She asks for a week off from work and a loan of one million yuan (RMB), both “to help save a life.” Shen agrees and comforts her by giving her a shoulder to cry on. At this moment, Shen’s wife, Mo Xiaoyu (Hong Chen), barges into his office. It appears to her that Shen and Lanqiu are embracing in a romantic way. Assuming that her husband is having an affair with Lanqiu, she leaves in a huff.
Soon thereafter, Lanqiu, Shen, and Xiaoyu find out about the viral video. Lanqiu feels humiliated and agrees to do a video apology at the request of Jiaqi, who is assisted by videographer Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao), Ruoxi’s live-in boyfriend. After Jiaqi leaves with the footage, Shoucheng’s empathy for Lanqiu’s predicament leads her hire him as her personal assistant for a week. Her objective is to go underground to avoid the public brouhaha about her. Shoucheng accepts in part because he has a debt that he needs to repay within a week. Meanwhile, Xiaoyu decides to use the controversy over Lanqiu’s behavior on the bus to retaliate against her husband for his presumed affair with Lanqiu.
At this point, we have two potential love triangles: Shen-Xiaoyu-Lanqiu and Shoucheng-Ruoxi-Lanqiu. One of them turns out to be real, the other not. Both of them, however, cause cycles of anger and retaliation that tear apart the relationships of those involved. All of this is fueled by follow-ups to the viral news story about Lanqiu, who is dubbed “Sunglasses Girl” by Chinese New Media gossip outlets.
“Caught in the Web” – Discussion
In addition to its themes of love and betrayal, this film makes a strong statement about the high cost of ambition for success. It also explores changing attitudes about social behavior required by tradition, juxtaposing it against the free-for-all that characterizes the world of online social media. While it runs a bit long (especially in its second act), “Caught in the Web” catches its second wind in its third act, delivering a bittersweet tragic ending. Standout performances from the cast include those of Gao, Chao, and Yao, with special mentions going to Luodan Wang and Chen. After watching this film on Netflix, I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.