During a surveying venture, a young man encounters a beautiful woman who works in an apparently secret building in a street that doesn’t appear on any maps, digital or otherwise. His subsequent obsession with her eventually leads him into increasingly treacherous waters, until he finds himself taken captive by a mysterious group of people accusing him of giving out state secrets. This is the basic plot outline of Trap Street—so far, so noir. But with its understated yet unmistakable emphasis on surveillance and its emotionally detached manner, Vivian Qu’s debut feature slowly reveals itself to be an eerie meditation on the increasingly thin line between technological illusion and hard reality.
The title refers to a surveying term denoting a street that’s either misrepresented or nonexistent on maps; sometimes these streets are so nondescript that they blend into the background. With the proliferation of GPS technology, one might assume that it would be impossible for any street, however well-hidden, to escape its supposed pinpoint accuracy. Qu’s film, however, takes place in a world where larger forces—whether government-based or otherwise—have the power to manipulate both technology and people to reflect the “reality” they wish to put across. This is something Li Qiuming (Lu Yulai), who plays a lot of video games in his spare time and is just generally tuned into modern-day technological innovations, will gradually realize in the course of attempting to court the aforementioned mysterious woman, Guan Lifen (He Wenchao), and subsequently getting into hot water with menacing authority figures.
With its personal-obsession angle combined with its surveillance phobia, Trap Street’s spiritual forbears are easy to spot: It boils down to a cross between Vertigo and The Conversation. But instead of the swooning doom-laden romanticism of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Qu goes more for the unnervingly low-key vibe of Francis Ford Coppola’s film. Lengthy stretches are bereft of dialogue, consisting simply of the camera observing the characters’ behavior; at other points, the film adopts the perspective of the surveillance cameras themselves. Through such subtle means, Qu is able to infuse the early stretches of the film with a palpable unease, a sense that something is amiss underneath it all. Even Matthieu Laclau and Li Tian’s high-definition videography adds to the overall disquieting effect, the hyper-clarity of the images almost mocking the main character’s fuzzy-at-best awareness of the insidious forces ensnaring him in his grasp.
For all the slow-burn tension the film expertly generates, Trap Street isn’t able to entirely transcend its derivative origins and thus escape a suspicion that its power is, to some extent, borrowed from off-the-shelf parts of previous, better films. And with its modern-day China setting and two-dimensional characterizations, Qu’s film also carries hints of didacticism that occasionally undercut our involvement in the central drama, with Qu putting too much faith in both our awareness of the noir tropes she employs and our awareness of the notoriously repressive nature of the Chinese government to fill in some of the blanks. Still, when Qu builds up to her final images of a more world-weary and newly suspicious Li tearing up an apartment Harry Caul-style, Trap Street makes its point firmly and devastatingly: If even the most up-to-date technological innovations can be co-opted to wage campaigns of fear, who can be trusted in this world?