Serving as this year’s Oscar submission from China in the foreign-film category, “Caught in the Web,” from veteran director Chen Kaige, is a fast-paced, tragi-comedy that puts the spotlight on the Internet and privacy. In this melodramatic tale, a young woman becomes a national obsession after an incident on a bus is webcast.
For those who associate Chen with his beautiful period pieces, such as the 1993 Palme d’Or winner “Farewell My Concubine,” “Caught in the Web” shows the director tackling modern-day society head-on.
At a Q&A following TheWrap’s screening of the film Thursday night at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles, Chen discussed everything from the making of the film, to going viral in China and the Cultural Revolution.
In response to a question from TheWrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman about the role of the Internet in his home country, Chen said: “There are, of course, things that happen with websites that are positive, the public scrutiny of corruption and of so many corrupt officials who are scared because they know they are being watched by so many people.”
The film provides an eye toward the progress China has made in the last three decades, with the Chinese every bit as materially "with it" as their Western counterparts, from flat-screen TVs to cool jeans, the latest smart phones and even Juicy Couture inspired home wear. But for Chen this doesn’t necessarily mark a positive change.
“If people talk about the progress Chinese society has made over three decades, well, if the individual’s life cannot be protected, I don’t see any real progress, which is why I think it is important to make a film like this,” he said.
“Whatever people do, they think is reasonable,” he added. "But to me, it isn’t right if you can’t respect other people’s privacy. We are humans, and we should respect each other. Our life, our economy has improved, but so many people still live with uneasiness and they don’t feel happy and why? So many people are left with poverty. They have money but money is not the thing that can make them happy.”
In the film, a young woman discovers she has cancer and is too shocked to give up her seat on the bus to an old man. The incident, which is webcast and then broadcast across the country, makes the woman an outcast.
Although this story is fiction, Chen spoke about a number of real-life examples of stories that have gone viral in much the same way in China, with different results.
“This kind of story going viral on the web happens almost everyday,” Chen said, before recounting another story of a government official.
“A government official in charge of strategy and security went to the site of a bus crash where some people had lost their lives,” said Chen. “He was there, and all of a sudden he smiled for no reason. The next day, people could see him smile on the web, and the next day everyone could see it, and he was in big trouble. The next day you could see his expensive watch and asked how could he afford that? The next day it was revealed that he has 21 watches. And the next day, he lost his job.”
Raised during the Cultural Revolution in China, which ran from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, Chen said that he sees scary comparisons to then and now.
“It seems like some people are happy to hurt others,” he said. “I remember Chairman Mao asked the young people to take action against their parents or teachers. The whole thing became a festival. Many people were assaulted and attacked, and people didn't know why at that time. But today there is a new platform being built on the web. People could do the same. I see the comparison between what happened a long time ago and what happened today. I think there is a need to avoid what happened then again today because that was the darkest period in Chinese history.”
In China, there are ongoing issues with government censorship and interference with filmmakers, some of whom have been barred from practicing their craft. Although it is not overtly political, Chen’s film aroused attention before it was made.
“I think that before ‘Caught in the Web’ was made, some people — the leaders and businessmen — were scared about what I would say in the film because sometimes there are sensitive issues in a contemporary piece. But I did this movie with a good heart, and I am equal to each character in the film, no matter what they do, and they all do their own thing," he said.
Still, the characters in this film — which one audience member described as a “comedy of manners” — hit home with audiences in China in a positive way. Many Tweeted to Chen to say how much they were able to identify with the characters, from young people struggling with relationships or getting ahead in their careers, to twisted marriages, and corporate boardroom shenanigans designed to lure foreign business in any way possible.
“After the film was released in China, I received hundreds of messages, not saying how great the film is but how familiar viewers are with those characters. They feel they are their friends and neighbors. They can relate to them and they think they are real. I feel appreciated and I feel that it is worth it that I spent a long time,” said Chen.
As for his future films and his interest in politics, Chen told Waxman: "I am still interested in social events and political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution, but I was not able to make this movie like that, and I could not see doing that in the near future.”