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iffr: trap street

Did Vivian Qu, writer and director of 'Trap Street' ('Shui Yinjie', 2014) ever read Kafka's 'The Castle'? It would have been interesting to ask her, but she wasn't present at today's screening at IFFR. For the premise of her chilling paranoia thriller - a young surveyor gets caught up in sinister state machinations without ever finding out exactly why - fits the archetype of 'The Castle' perfectly.

Except, of course, that this is modern-day China, and the all-powerful state with its vast, shady bureaucracy and obsession with secrets is only one part of the nightmare. The other part is China's cutthroat, free-for-all capitalism that leaves all players, from consumers to small and large businesses alike, constantly vulnerable to being swindled, spied upon, ripped of or forced out business when the right palms have not been greased.

And then there is a classic femme fatale, whose motives remain inscrutable throughout...

Trap Street - 1

Starting out lightheartedly, 'Trap Street' builds up slowly before ensnaring its protagonist. A trap street refers to the practice of adding a fictitious street to a map as a way of copyright control, but in this case the reverse is also true: the young surveyor, working for a map company, discovers a dead-end street that is not on the city map and resists being surveyed - it is "rejected by the system".

In this dark, tree-lined lane he meets a young woman who apparently works there, at a mysterious office called Lab 203, and he starts hanging around the street long enough to attract not only her attention, but unwanted government attention as well. Revealing more would spoil the plot, so suffice to say that when the trap snaps shut, it is to utterly crush the young surveyor as well as his budding relationship with the beauty from the officially non-existent Forest Lane.

Trap Street - 2

Modern China, 'Trap Street' concludes coldly, is no place for trust. But like in 'The Castle', its sense of broken hope and mistrust goes beyond modern bureacracy, surveillance and greed to encompass a more existential theme of man's struggle for his place in an ultimately incomprehensible world.

As a side note, seeing 'Trap Street' on the same day as Kelly Reichardt's new film 'Night Moves', it appears that the serious paranoia thriller is back from a long absence. Not since Alan Pakula's 1970s 'paranoia trilogy' have we seen such pervasive fear of society as seen from the perspective of outsiders - either forcefully ejected as in 'Trap Street' or on a chosen path of radicalism as in 'Night Moves'.

The resulting modern symptoms, however, are similar: 1) get rid of your sim card, 2) avoid cameras as much as possible, and 3) trust no one.

Update: Director Vivian Qu was kind enough to answer my question via email. Here is what she said:

The answer is yes and no. Or maybe I should put it this way: I think Kafka is an expert on Chinese society :)

In fact, almost all the inspiration for this film comes from reality -- the little things that we see and hear around us in today's China. When you piece them together, they seem unmistakably Kafkaesque. The society may seem changed in dramatic ways, but the inner-workings which is what interests me in making this film, has not changed much.

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