Friday, December 20, 2013

Caught in the Web

CAUGHT IN THE WEB         D        
China  (117 mi)  2012  d:  Chen Kaige

Whatever happened to Chen Kaige’s promising career?  YELLOW EARTH (1985), magnificently filmed by fellow director Zhang Yimou, and FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993), still the only Chinese film to ever win the Palme d’Or, are two of the best Chinese films ever made, yet the director remains in utter obscurity today, forgotten in the faded relics of history amidst the Chinese mad dash to modernity.  How does the director feel about his earlier masterworks?  Yellow Earth?  No one would come to see this film today in China.  The people walking into theaters and sitting in the dark are all in their twenties. They know nothing about history and are not interested.  Their choice is to find something to make them relax.  They don’t want to think.  They need to think a lot in their daily lives already.  Film is just entertainment.”  Nowhere is urbanization accelerating at a faster clip than in China at the moment which is transforming from a traditional agrarian socialist collective into a supply-and-demand economy, adopting the Hollywood model where the market determines what films are made.  Historical costume dramas, among Chen’s specialties, where THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN (1998) was the most expensive Chinese film ever made at the time, are currently a thing of the past, as investors nowadays are only interested in making money, having little interest in what the film actually has to say.  This does not bode well for the future of the nation, where if this film is any indication, the floodgates are open for mindless drivel that substitutes for content, supposedly a satire on the dawning of the Internet age in China, expressed almost completely through an overreliance on computers, cellphones, texts, insta-photographs, and YouTube videos, with no reference whatsoever to the government’s suppression of Google and other search engines that reach for information from the outside world.  Instead the entire film takes one long, repetitive look at the impact of a single trivial incident captured on a cellphone that goes viral once it’s aired on national TV, turning into a comic farce about the ridiculous behind-the-scene maneuvers to manipulate and publicize so-called reality videos that can overnight become topics for national conversation.  

What’s immediately apparent is the shift in style from any of Chen’s earlier films, where gone is the luscious beauty of the image, replaced by a quick edit style where few shots last beyond 5 seconds, where it intentionally becomes a film that reflects the short attention span of the nation, where all that matters is the present, as people’s lives have no future and no past.  Within this framework the director sneaks in an old-fashioned tearjerker, something of a melodrama about a woman, Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), diagnosed with terminal cancer who chooses to live out her final days in grace and dignity.  Still in something of a daze after her diagnosis, she is the victim of cyber bullying, initially captured on smart-phone footage sitting on a bus, refusing to give up her seat to an elderly man, even after repeated badgering by hostile passengers, which is then broadcast across the nation as an example of today’s self-centered youth.  In a rush to generate as much media attention as possible, her identity is quickly revealed, also a fictitious story about how she’s having an affair with her boss.  Totally embarrassed by this encounter, Ye seeks solace in solitude, refusing to show her face to the public after offering an apology which is never aired.  Showing how easy it is to manipulate the truth, broadcasting any scenario that generates controversy, all designed to provoke the public’s interest, where cynical people working behind the scenes are constantly seeking headline grabbing storylines that have a short shelf life, soon replaced by the next fabrication.  Reality TV broadcast in this manner is little more than the spreading of vicious gossip and rumors in place of the truth, posing doom for the future of the nation.  Ye Lanqui develops a sentimental love interest in Shoucheng (Mark Chao), an earnest young man, but their doomed love, played out like a soap opera, mirrors the fatalistic view of the nation.  All told in cardboard cut-out characters who yell and scream at each other, spend their time staring at computer screens, where exaggerated farce becomes the reality of the day, this adaptation of an Internet novel is little more than an embarrassment, where there’s simply nothing to recommend about this movie.  An emphatically dull and depressing example of what was once a glorious film industry, this is the absolute flipside of Jia Zhang-ke’s riveting and mystifyingly surreal  A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) (2013), which is similarly built around real life incidents, where this is supposedly China’s 2013 selection for Best Foreign Film of the year, while it’s also a candidate for one of the worst films of the year. 

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