Published Sep 16, 2013Surveillance, though intended as a safety measure, deterring criminals from engaging in duplicitous behaviour or catching those unconcerned with, or unaware of, the camera in the act, has an unavoidably eerie, panopticon implication. While it aids in the investigation of habitual criminals in high traffic crime locales, such as ATMs, convenience stores and merchandise warehouses, it also infringes upon basic civil liberties and privacy, having surpassed its original preventative safeguarding intentions to become an ever-encroaching, discomforting status quo reality for those in urban centers.
With Trap Street (Vivian Qu's low-key conspiracy thriller debut), monitoring devices and digital mapping are omnipresent. Li Qiuming (Yulai Lu), a young trainee at a digital mapping company, spends his days documenting the nooks and crannies of mainland China, when not installing secret cameras for extra cash after hours. He's initially indifferent to his trade, accepting the presumed good intentions of his employer and an invisible omniscient eye, but starts to question the world handed down to him when his attempts to map a secluded alley — one that a mysterious woman (Wenchao He) disappears into — malfunction, learning that the boss (one he isn't allowed to see firsthand) doesn't want them to add "Forest Lane" to their database.
Being young, curious and filled with hormones, he enters the life of this mystery woman (Guan Lifen), discovering a small case with flash drives enclosed in his van after giving her a ride home. Unknowingly, he returns the item and proceeds to linger outside of an unnamed facility on Forest Lane, hoping to learn more about this woman and what sort of work she does.
Qu, being interested primarily in the didactics of this story, injects surveillance into every scene. If a sequence doesn't specifically revolve around installing a camera or discussing GPS, she uses a candid angle to suggest an unseen eye or, at times, inserts surveillance footage to assert an invisible antagonist as a looming threat. This is all given a literal context once Qiuming is locked in a room and interrogated for unspecified reasons, repeatedly asked seemingly banal questions his interrogators already know the answers to.
Because of Qu's steady, stylistically specific and unembellished approach to telling this story, the social critique is exceedingly evident. That Qiuming is being vilified for pursuing a harmless potential relationship with an attractive woman is alienating and infuriating. What's problematic is that the development of this relationship and every other tangential storyline in the film is tenuous and bland. None of the characters are particularly complex and even Qiuming is presented as a mere cipher, transitioning from wide-eyed innocence to worldly defeat after an intrusive act breaks his idealism cherry.
This slightness and emotional void are complemented only by snarky visual metaphors. Monkeys in a zoo and a fruitless round of bumper cars merely reiterate the sense of governmental imprisonment and perpetual oppression clearly stated by an exceedingly uncomplicated narrative.
That Qu isn't subtle in her intentions isn't necessarily problematic, but the clinical nature of Trap Street does hinder identification, leaving an audience less inclined to identify with (or feel the rage of) an unremarkable protagonist.