‘Web’ spins cold-eyed portrait of contemporary life in China

The title promises another tired warning about the Dangers of the Internet, and so does a thumbnail description of the plot: A young woman is rude to an elderly gentleman on a bus, the incident is filmed on a cellphone, and when the clip goes viral it leads to serious problems for the woman and the people in her life.

Undeniably, “Caught in the Web” is about this aspect of modern life, and maybe the Chinese authorities who approved the movie liked the cautionary tale about risks associated with free-wheeling cyberspace.

Funny thing is, the movie itself is less a wag of the finger about the online arena than it is a slice of contemporary life in China.

It depicts a cold world of corporate skullduggery and media opportunism — which makes you wonder whether veteran director Chen Kaige might’ve been sneaking his disenchanted portrait past the powers-that-be.

A member of the breakthrough “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, Chen Kaige has had a maddeningly inconsistent output, ping-ponging between arty triumphs (“Yellow Earth”) and Hollywood-style melodrama (“Farewell My Concubine”), all the while negotiating the complex business of being an artist in China.

If “Caught in the Web” is no classic (the musical soundtrack is notably poor, for instance), it is nevertheless a lively outing in this director’s career.

The woman on the bus is Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan, from “City of Life and Death”), and the reason she’s so rude is that she’s just received a grim cancer diagnosis.

Drawn into the fallout from the viral video are her reptilian boss (the terrific Wang Xueqi) and his high-living wife (Chen Hong), both of whom are allowed more color and complex motivations than we might initially assume.

An ambitious reporter (Yao Chen) and her boyfriend (Mark Chao) round out the key circle of players. There are enough rich characters and cross-purposes to stretch this premise out into a couple of seasons’ worth of a cable-TV series.

Lanqiu’s diagnosis forestalls that idea, and also leads the movie toward a sentimental conclusion, but not before Chen Kaige has lifted the lid on a particularly nasty group of vipers.

Forget the trendy cyber-subject: This is an old-fashioned, and clear-eyed, view of choices and consequences.

“Caught in the Web” (3 stars)

Rude behavior by a distraught woman is caught by a cellphone camera and goes viral, affecting the lives of everybody close to her. Not just a trendy cautionary tale about the cyberworld, this film by veteran director Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”) is a cold-eyed view of life in contemporary China. In Mandarin and Cantonese, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Sundance.

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