For two more nights, Facets Multimedia will show Chen Kaige’s latest film, Caught in the Web, a topical comedy-drama about life in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Reviews of the movie tend to describe Chen’s take on the zeitgeist as heavy-handed, especially when compared with the work of such younger mainland Chinese directors as Jia Zhang-ke. I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, though I don’t consider any film by Chen to be without interest. After all, he’s one of the most groundbreaking mainland filmmakers of his generation. His Yellow Earth (1984) brought international attention to the “fifth generation” school of Chinese cinema—it was also among the first Chinese movies to confront the history of the Cultural Revolution (a subject he revisited in his subsequent King of the Children and Farewell My Concubine). History is a constant theme in Chen’s work, Caught being no exception. Its awkwardness might be ascribed to Chen’s attempt to view the present as if it were a historical era, considering what contemporary modes of communication might reflect about the development of Chinese culture on the whole.
The film is concerned with the recent phenomenon of cyber-bullying, which it condemns in no subtle terms. The protagonist is an ordinary middle-class woman who discovers she has terminal cancer. Distraught after hearing the news, she lashes out at an old man on the bus on her way home from the doctor’s office. An intern working at a sensationalistic TV news program captures the event on camera and hypes it up to her superiors. The afflicted woman is castigated on national TV as the villain of the day, making her a target for vindictive behavior wherever she goes. The movie suggests an inversion of the classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), in which a cynical reporter exploits a small-town woman’s misfortune, only to set off an uncontrollable wave of sympathetic behavior. Here, the cynical reporter appeals to her audience’s sense of indignation, and the results are just as far-reaching.
Does Chen see any parallels with the persecution of individuals under the Cultural Revolution? Given how crucial that period is to his life and work, I’d assume that he does. Born in 1952, Chen was an adolescent when the Cultural Revolution began. He joined the Red Guard and publicly denounced his father (who was, incidentally, also a filmmaker). Caught in the Web argues that mass opinion remains vulnerable to manipulation, and Chen knows better than anyone what can come of that.