Chen Kaige, who remains best known for directing the Cannes prizewinner “Farewell My Concubine,” shouldn’t be faulted for attempting a state-of-the-nation look at China today with his new movie, “Caught in the Web.” But this story of cyberbullying and its discontents, though harboring flinty truths and staffed with popular domestic stars, is a messy collision of strained portrayals, semi-comic incidents and tear-jerking tactics.
In Chen’s movie, an executive’s assistant, Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), is tormented by mobs on the Web after a budding reporter (Wang Luodan) films her denying an elderly man a seat on a bus. Per an unnecessarily overloaded premise, the source of her irritability is unimpeachable: a diagnosis of cancer. The witness’ sister, a journalist and producer (Yao Chen), picks up the story but does not know that her live-in boyfriend (Mark Chao) has been hired by Ye as a companion for her last days on Earth.
Meanwhile, Ye’s understanding but imperious boss (Wang Xueqi) lords it over his wife (Chen Hong) after she tries to turn the screws over suspected hanky-panky with Ye. The older couple’s relationship, a brooding faceoff played out in the cold comfort of their well-appointed home, is overshadowed by choppily assembled intrigue and the martyrizing of Ye.
Chen’s camera placement often feels too much like a bid to mix things up, and the occasionally goofy soundtrack cues seem to have been bought in bulk. While the film tackles an admittedly slippery contemporary moment, its grasp is weakened by divided attentions and unwieldy approaches.