Critic’s Pick of the Week: Caught in the Web reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

Unlike David Fincher’s The Social Network, which burnished the legend of Mark Zuckerberg founding Facebook while glamourizing the modern derangement of social values and personal relations, Chen Kaige gets directly to the social, spiritual point in his masterly new film Caught in the Web.

Chen balances a multi-character story involving an executive secretary Ye Lanqiu (Yuanyuan Gao) who is objectified by a cell phone camera capture of a complex private moment that gets broadcast–and misinterpreted–over social media. (Remember how celebration of The Social Network rode right over the simultaneous death of Tyler Clementi?) The stress this causes in the lives of her boss Shen (Xueqi Wang) and his wife Mo (Chen Hong) extends to the relations of TV journalist Ruoxi (Chen Yao) who exploits the clip; Rouxi’s charming lover, Yan Souchang (Mark Chao) and the cousin she mentors, Jiaqi (May Wang) are entangled in Chen’s ingenious narrative lattice.

Caught in the Web moves swiftly, like farce, yet Ye’s personal crisis–the media heartlessly mocks her as “Sunglasses Girl”–reflects a serious turning point in national, global morality. As Chen interweaves all the characters, their physical interactions clearly show how social media effects our spiritual lives producing phantom antagonisms and emotional confusions. Chen’s hollow men and women (to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase) suffer a new millennium’s existential panic not unlike the old (“Between the idea/ And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the shadow”) but exacerbated by the overwhelming tendency to let technology replace actual connection and interaction.

Several kinds of love story are adroitly revealed: Ye’s loneliness is answered amd complicated by Souchang’s ardent restlessness, her boss Shen’s marriage is exposed as a mismatch of longings that go back to its beginning, and Ruoxi’s media hotshot ambitions mask a desperation that, like everyone’s, is tied to social and economic insecurity. The human texture of these conflicts–through the most subtle, vibrant, funny and moving performances of any film this year–makes Caught in the Web more than a social screed. It satirizes the excesses of digital-era chaos (“Only the mentally ill tell the truth these days”) yet Chen respects the gravity of his characters’ turmoil. (Money is this film’s Maguffin–the thing the characters care about while Chen takes us deeper.)

In Jia Zhangke’s poisonous, overrated A Touch of Sin, China’s moral distress was used as an occasion to indulge the violent, nihilistic catastrophes favored among Festival Circuit cynics. By equating national chaos with kung-fu movie brutality, Jia Zhangke continued his usual simplistic, sophomoric social perspective. That this cynicism prevails in the culture might explain why Caught in the Web, which sweeps its characters along, like a game of chess played at Internet speed has not been widely hailed. Chen movingly glimpses the effable, his breathtaking final scene challenges the mystery of digitalized experience: probing what we see, what we remember and what is real. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs might go “Huh?” but Antonioni would be proud.

But breakthroughs are hard to calibrate. I can’t think of any other movie that so clearly captures how the media–journalism and the Internet– takes life out of context. The world attacks Ye’s moment of infamy (her outward frustration masks despair and hidden desire) while her boss secretly observes “She has character.” This disjuncture reveals an almost sinister, Frtiz Langian social network—a heartbreaking examination of how technology distances and confuses human response as Brian DePalma intended Redacted to be but failed.

“Our job is to record the face of the truth, but sometimes the truth is puzzling,” is Ruoxi’s callous professional’s self-justification but that thought also inspires Chen’s humane investigation. His essentially romantic style goes contrary to David Fincher and Jia Zhangke’s chic pessimism about how both digital media and television and rampant capitalism ruinously intervenes with our perceptions of self and others, eventually anesthetizing and distancing our anxieties. Chen’s vision of this reality is as bold as Renoir’s Rules of the Game was in its day.

Countering the self-importance of The Social Network and A Touch of Sin, Caught in the Web’s style is deceptively light; the shift in consciousness among digital era “Netizens” is an on-the-wing social observation but profoundly humane. Through Shen’s heartfelt lament, “Why put such a vulgar spin on a noble act,” Chen summarizes our global and cinematic condition.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair