Boy meets girl only for state to spy on boy in Trap Street, a stealthy exercise in surveillance state paranoia that marked the directorial debut of Vivian Qu who has since won plaudits for her sexual assault drama Angels Wear White (2017). Despite pivoting its evisceration of China’s moral double standards on the abuse of two schoolgirls by a prominent official, Angels Wear White received a relatively high profile theatrical release in its home territory for a potentially controversial independent production while Qu’s first feature remains largely unseen by domestic audiences. This is indicative of how its focus on the reach of China’s surveillance structure is especially sensitive. Having a representative of the state declare, “Very few matters are completely private”, would usually border on cliché, but here such a statements point to how monitoring serves as a tool for repression, with most citizens complicit in the process through incessant use of the latest mobile technology.
Events gradually unfold in Nanjing where Li Qiuming (Lu Yulai) is an eager trainee at a digital mapping company who has an after hours sideline installing secret cameras in leisure businesses such as clubs, spas, and hotels (foreshadowing a particularly ironic parting shot). On the day job with his gruff senior partner Zhang Sheng (Hou Yong), Li spots the beautiful Guan Lifen (He Wenchao) while looking through his surveying equipment and is immediately besotted. Hours later, Li seizes the opportunity to ingratiate himself and offers Guan a lift to the nearest subway station during a downpour. Fate seems to be on his side when he finds her small business case with flash drives inside while cleaning the company van and arranged to return it, only for her overly avuncular supervisor Xie Bo (a perfectly judged turn from Liu Tiejian) to show up instead.
From here, Li’s not only becomes obsessed with the enigmatic Guan but also with Forest Lane, a street that doesn’t show up on GPS or his company’s digital-mapping system. Guan works at this location at the mysteriously labeled ‘Lab 203’, so Li keeps going back there, eventually reuniting with Guan, who this time gives him a lift. Although she seems to be way out of his league, they start dating, but things take a dangerous turn when Guan disappears and Li is interrogated about his apparently suspicious interest in ‘Lab 203’. Li may subscribe to the, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing have nothing to worry about”, view on surveillance, but soon realizes that it’s not so simple.
The manner in which Qu makes her precise critique is as determinedly low-key as it is unusually low-tech. Whereas most films that address the extent to which our lives are now monitored go for imposing drone shots or fixate on cold CCTV footage, Trap Street eschews these clichés for a more plainly insidious aesthetic. Even the interrogation scene is resolutely pared-down, taking place in a rickety urban village and being conducted through old-school intimidation technique. There are some glimpses of surveillance footage, but for the most part, crisp digital cinematography by Tian Li and Matthieu Laclau smartly suggest the all-seeing eye through well-chosen camera angles that maintain a sense of curious detachment. Laclau’s involvement here is particularly interesting in retrospect as, in an editorial role, he recently collaborated with installation artists Xu Bing on Dragonfly Eyes (2017), a film that is comprised entirely of legally accessible, cloud-based surveillance footage. Dragonfly Eyes, which also tells a thwarted love story, takes an audacious, overwhelmingly maximalist approach with a barreling succession of grainy images enhanced by pulsating electronic music, while Trap Street is minimalist endeavor which strips away genre trickery and subtly settles the viewer into the role of the passive camera.
There are still discernible cinematic reference points. Qu’s vision of urban malaise in the information age takes its cue from the dispassionate dissonance of Michelangelo Antonioni and Michael Haneke, while the final scene is a savage riff on Francis Ford Coppola’s classic conspiracy thriller The Conversation (1974) for China’s gullible, if tech-savvy, youth. In terms of genre, Trap Street skirts the already vaguely defined parameters of neo noir with its deceptively casual use of thriller devices and a central protagonist who finds himself in way over his head, although Qu shrewdly shift away from genre conventions. If the noir protagonist usually understands things too late, then the young protagonist here suffers a premature realization that makes everyday existence a prison of sorts – a late scene at a local park sees him joylessly driving a bumper car, obstructed by other riders and the limits of the track. Here, the choice of environment and Xu’s fixed framing note an extension of the general concern of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers for the lack of individual agency in a controlled society.
In her effort to craft an emblematic narrative, Xu risks rendering her protagonists as sketches but her screenplay and canny casting choices make Li and, to some extent, Guan, more than mere ciphers. Li has embraced technology as a means of making money and escaping from the ordinary world through video games but is blind to the ulterior motives of such advancements (he only sees the personal convenience of GPS) and personal acquaintances (he was previously cheated out of a substantial sum by a business partner). Lu has an impulsive, sympathetically naïve quality in the role which contrasts nicely with the graceful He as Guan. Her presence nicely subverts the femme fatale by suggesting a genuinely caring nature beneath the cool surface and just about makes Guan’s willingness to go out with a suitor beneath her level of social standing convincing. Still, it’s undoubtedly Guan’s air of mystery that appeals so much to Li – when choosing a cellphone photo of Guan to print out, he settles on one where her lovely face is obscured.
Xu likewise keeps aspects of the film’s cryptic plot in the shadows, which ultimately turns the payoff into as much of a Kafkaesque conundrum as it is a swipe at the dangerously invasive nature of blithely accepted monitoring mechanisms.