The online world has created a strange constellation of non-celebrities catapulted to fame by virtue of a quirk, a stunt, a mistake, or an obsession that captured the public’s imagination: strange accidental celebrities like Chris Crocker, who briefly mesmerized the Internet as the “Leave Britney alone!” guy; “Star Wars Kid,” a chubby young geek who became a YouTube sensation against his will; and Antoine “Bed Intruder” Dodson, whose colorful responses to a local news interview about a home intruder on the loose were turned into a hit song.
There are massive downsides to becoming famous overnight as comic fodder for Internet rubberneckers. In 2006, a Yale student named Aleksey Vayner became infamous for a video résumé titled “Impossible Is Nothing” that delighted the snark brigade with its crazed self-mythologizing. In the video, Vayner depicted himself as a renaissance man whose unique skill set rendered him something approaching superhuman, but the relentless mockery of Vayner, his video, and his delusional hubris took its toll, and Vayner died of a possibly drug-related heart attack earlier this year at the age of 29.
Chen Kaige’s new melodrama Caught In The Web introduces a fictional newcomer into this pantheon of Internet and media-created accidental superstars: “Sunglasses Girl,” a shades-wearing young Chinese woman who becomes a celebrity after footage of her refusing to give her seat to an old man becomes a viral sensation. “Sunglasses Girl” is caught in a media whirlwind when she’s held up as the living personification of the self-absorption and disrespect of the younger generation. She becomes a symbol, a scapegoat, and a cultural villain. A few minutes of misbehavior comes to represent, for the public at least, everything she is and will ever be.
The sequence where “Sunglasses Girl” lurches unexpectedly into public infamy is simultaneously obvious and ambiguous. There’s nothing subtle about it: Seemingly the entire bus screams at the woman to give up the seat, including the old man himself, and the sequence goes on so long that even audiences will be tempted to yell at her to get up. At the same time, the woman’s motives are enigmatic to her fellow bus riders, but not to the audience, which knows that the woman, Lanqiu (Yuanyuan Gao), has just been diagnosed with a very advanced form of lymphatic cancer, and must have an operation within a week. Lanqiu never explains why she didn’t give up her seat, and though revealing the diagnosis would help exonerate her in the public eye, she chooses not to disclose it.
Her motivations are intriguingly cryptic, but she begins to fade into the background as Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine) and co-screenwriter Tang Danian spin her public humiliation into a sprawling soap opera involving the ruthlessly ambitious journalist who broke the story, the journalist’s boyfriend, who ends up becoming Lanqiu’s bodyguard and confidante, and the tortured marriage between Lanqiu’s sexist, controlling boss Mr. Shen (Xueqi Wang), and his desperately unhappy trophy wife. Throw in corporate machinations involving Mr. Shen’s company attempting to go international, and a film that begins as an exploration of the costs of Internet celebrity quickly spirals into a glossy soap opera that attempts to comment upon the slick, superficial emptiness of contemporary online and youth culture by exemplifying it.
The bigger the story gets, the more diffuse it becomes, until Lanqiu is a fuzzily developed supporting character in her own movie—a noble, unquestioning martyr unfairly maligned as a public menace. The film speeds off in multiple directions, from social commentary to dark comedy to domestic melodrama to dewy romance, but without the benefit of any master plan. The screenplay relies far too heavily on coincidences, misunderstandings, and characters purposefully not saying things for reasons rooted in plot contrivances rather than clear motivation.
There’s a fascinating, insightful movie to be made about way society projects its anxieties, insecurities, and values onto people unlucky enough to fall into unwanted viral celebrity. But Caught In The Web loses interest in being that movie about 20 minutes in, and ends up using the character’s online infamy as a sexy contemporary hook for an ultimately conventional melodrama that crosses age, gender, and class lines. It’s fitting that a movie about a substance-free online and media frenzy should begin with a torrent of potential and excitement, yet quickly peter out: Caught In The Web has just a little too much in common with the shallow, slick world it’s ostensibly critiquing.