A cautionary tale for our modern love of technology and surveillance paranoia in Vivian Qu’s striking debut…
Li Qiuming (Lu Yulai, Soundless Wind Chime, Peacock, The Last Supper, The Red Awn) meets Guan Lifen (He Wenchao, Sweet Eighteen, Hua Yao Bride in Shangri-La, My Career as a Teacher) quite by chance during his day job as a trainee urban surveyor, and is immediately smitten. He goes to great lengths to make sure he can ‘accidently’ bump into her again, but it’s not as easy as that. For one thing, the street where she works as a research scientist refuses to register on Li’s surveying system. Undeterred, that only seems to pique his curiosity more.
There’s a naturalistic, believable flow to the narrative as we see the world from Li’s perspective; his days spent learning the trade, his evenings spent installing surveillance cameras in hotels and businesses for extra cash, and spare time spent with his family or playing zombie computer games with his flatmate.
When Li finally does manage to convince Guan to go on a date with him, all seems to go well. He gives her a GPS for her car, they go to the zoo, and to bars. All seems perfectly normal for the first stages of courtship. That is until Li disappears one night when buying a drink…
We are so swept along by Li’s exuberance – brilliantly played by Lu who perfectly embodies a young man still ‘wet behind the ears’ about life (in reality, he’s 31) – that we take this romance, if not exactly earth-shattering, at face value. Impressively, even though it’s impossible to go near a synopsis without alerting you to the plot, writer/director Vivian Qu actually manages to divert you from looking too closely for clues.
This approach has actually become a sticking point for many reviewers, who felt the film lacked the dynamism they expected from the ‘thriller’ or a ‘mystery drama’ genre. But that’s the point: this film is not about clichés – it’s just what happens to Li. Talking to Qu shortly before the London Film Festival screening, and briefly her producer Sean Chen (22 Hours Films), it was obvious that they’d become dismayed the film had been seen in that context.
(I found it interesting that Sean picked out one of my business cards with Audition on the back, which he stated was one of his ‘favourite movies’. There are easily parallels to be found with Takashi Miike’s film, which for most of the running time hardly plays as a horror or thriller, save for that scene with the moving sack.)
Whatever some reviewers may think about the lack of a dramatic or definitive conclusion, the film works effectively. The terrifying thing is that there’s a lot of truth in Trap Street; that many people have been pulled in for questioning by authorities for the slightest reason. It actually happened to a few members of the film crew, and most knew someone or had heard stories.
The worst part for Li is, like all youth, he surrounds himself in technology and the assumed openness that we all take for granted: social networks, search engines, computer games, he even reads out the exact GPS location on his watch – only to find himself a victim of surveillance. This might play into our paranoia, but we shouldn’t dismiss this as something that just happens in China. If recent events surrounding NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have told us nothing else, it’s that this happens everywhere.
Her previous work as a producer working closely with directors like Diao Yinan meant she has a confidence, both in topic and pace, which is rare to see in a first feature. Shot in Nanjing, Vivian Qu’s assured direction is given a clean, crisp look by cinematographers Tian Li and Matthieu Laclau. In discussion, Qu spoke of a distinction she made between using a handheld camera for most of the shots, and mounted for shots from the surveillance cameras. In practice, the difference is subtle – it would have been so easy to overplay the difference with CCTV video effects – meaning that the effect is even more disarming when you realise which you are watching.
Perhaps the only problem with the film is the character of Guan Lifen. She needs to remain reticent throughout, but without giving away why. She could just be, well, not that into Li. Though it’s easy to see He Wenchao as beguiling, and Li’s enthusiasm oblivious to all around him – and he wouldn’t be the first – the pair lack chemistry, even if you take into account the naturalistic nature of Qu’s direction. But perhaps that is a moot point.
In some ways that this film was made at all in China is nothing short incredible. And not just because of any political objections, filmmaking of this quality on a medium-low budget is becoming increasingly difficult. An impressive debut, and definitely one that makes you think twice about the ‘openness’ of our digital lives. Superb.
Trap Street screened as part of the London Film Festival 2013.
Read our interview with Vivian Qu, who visited the LFF to present Trap Street.