Chen, the Fifth Generation director best known for the 1990s epic-sweepers “Farewell My Concubine” and “The Emperor and the Assassin,” goes contemporary with this busily plotted look at the uglier aspects of friending-and-trending media.
Chen adapted the story from an Internet novel (Wen Yu’s “Human Flesh Search”). The setting is a large, modern Chinese city.
Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), a young administrative assistant, receives a cancer diagnosis in an opening scene and, dazed from the news, refuses to yield her seat on the bus to an elderly man.
Riders express outrage at what they perceive as horridness on the part of the aloof-looking woman wearing shades. A young TV news intern (Luodan Wang) captures the incident on a cellphone camera.
The video, aired by the intern’s ratings-minded producer (Yao Chen), goes viral, and an avalanche of hate fills the Web. “Sunglasses girl” becomes a pariah.
The madness also affects people close to Ye, including her controlling boss (Xueqi Wang), his materialistic wife (Chen Hong) and the TV producer’s boyfriend (Mark Chao). The latter becomes Ye’s companion when the young woman embarks on a final journey.
While there’s nothing revelatory about the observation that technology created to enhance connectedness instead may encourage collective ill will, or that privacy, truth and decency get short shrift from such media, Chen initially presents these ideas with energy and comic verve.
At first, the film hints it might contain some Paddy Chayefsky-style satirical sharpness and Steven Soderbergh-inspired efficiency (with a topical tapestry), combined with Chen’s talent for generating emotional heat from melodrama. But once the convoluted plot takes hold, the story fizzles, and the film becomes as shallow as the subjects it depicts.
The narrative has a culled-from-a-book quality, and the plot is drastically uneven. When something gets interesting — the marital animosity of the CEO and his wife, for example — Chen switches to something inferior. A late-inning romance proves particularly tepid.
When tragedy happens, it makes little impact. And a moralistic ending counteracts any points the film has scored as a farce.
The cast, which includes Chen veterans and Chinese A-listers, can’t bring dimension to the characters, who seem designed only as technology-age symbols.
Caught in the Web
Starring Gao Yuanyuan, Yao Chen, Mark Chao, Chen Hong
Written and directed by Chen Kaige
Running time 2 hours, 1 minute