Trap Street review (London Film Festival)

Trap Street yellow light Yulai Lu

It’s never intense enough for the paranoid thriller it wants to be, but it has some chilling things to say about the dangers of the not-quite all-seeing eye of a total-surveillance society.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

A “trap street” is a trick mapmakers use to protect their work: it might be a road that’s deliberately left off a published map, or one represented with more curves than it actually has — it’s an intentional error that will show up in a competitor’s map only if they haven’t done the surveying themselves and have stolen someone else’s representation of reality. It’s almost a real-life trap street that surveyor Li Qiuming (Yulai Lu) and his partner “discover” as they survey a Chinese city: their calculations for “Forest Lane” keep getting rejected by the company’s computer mapping system, and — as Li later learns — the street doesn’t show up on GPS, either. Is the presence there of the ominously labeled “Lab 203” the reason for that? Anyway, none of this is on Li’s mind — though probably it should be — as he sorta-stalks pretty Guan Lifen (Wenchao He), whom he spots coming out of Forest Lane one night and can’t stop thinking about. Too-long chunks of the film are given over to his tentative pursuit of her and the shy development of their relationship until we get to the meat of a story that should feel more like the paranoid thriller it edges toward and never quite reaches… and yet there’s still some fascinating thematic issues at work here. This first feature from writer-director Vivian Qu is a cautionary tale — out of supposedly repressive China, not the supposedly free West — about the not-quite all-seeing eye of a total-surveillance society, and how seeing is not always understanding. The dictum that “If you’re not hiding anything, you’ve got nothing to fear” gets a startling workout (eventually), as utterly innocent behaviors of Li’s add up, in the eyes of the watchers, to very dangerous doings indeed. Li is an accidental trap street, one who shows up the terrifying capacities for injustice even when everyone on all sides of the system is acting in honest good faith.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

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