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Trap Street | 2013 TIFF Review

Trap of the Human Heart: Qu’s Debut a Sinister Slow Boil

Boy spies beautiful girl while engaged in rote work activities. Boy becomes fascinated with girl and decides to make his presence known to her. Boy suddenly finds himself thrown into a dangerous scenario. Thus is the basic premise of producer Vivian Qu’s directorial debut, Trap Street, a quiet, almost meditative thriller that doubles as a metaphor for freedom vs. control in modern day China. While the proceedings may be fairly straightforward, a murky menace pervades Qu’s tale of imaginary freedom and technological disconnect, a noir-ish lesson in the consequences of seeking complicated answers to simple questions.

Li Quiming (Lu Yulai) works for a digital mapping company, his job to photograph the constantly changing streets. One day while engaged in his street surveillance, he spies a beautiful woman (He Wenchao) through his viewfinder and is instantly taken with her. He makes a point to inform her that she may be parked incorrectly, and he takes note of the building she walks into, named Laboratory 23. Li stalls to stay in the area much to his partner’s chagrin. Fortune smiles upon him when circumstance allows the woman, named Guan Lifen, to accept a ride. He manages to obtain a small case that belongs to her, containing her contact information and two USBs, and he schedules a meeting with her to return this item. Meanwhile, he discovers that the address of Laboratory 23 on Forest Lane isn’t to be found in the GPS system. His colleague explains that “some places just won’t register in the system,” without any specific reason. When a strange man shows up to Li’s meeting to collect Guan’s belongings, Li begins to return to Forest Lane alone at night and again ingratiates himself upon Guan Lifen, who begins to respond flirtatiously. Suddenly, Li gets pulled into an interrogation, accused of a serious act of possible espionage and he must account for all his sudden interest in a secret place known as Lab 23.

A trap street, like a trap door, is meant to blend into its surroundings, briefly mentioned in a pointed passage here. Forest Lane, of course, is meant to be a trap street, and embodies all the implied menace that accompanies it. Whatever happens in Lab 23 is irrelevant, but its existence is at odds with today’s technologically savvy generation, where off map places and things aren’t supposed to exist. In a world where everything is documented, Li stumbles on a veritable land mine of secret space, reminding him and those around him that freedom is an illusion.

Perhaps another folly is the secret organization’s employment of the beautiful Guan Lifen, who inspires a curious young man’s romantic ideations, and thus, endangers their cover. Similarly, Li’s father is the head of a government run women’s magazine that doesn’t happen to have any women on the staff. An early scene show’s a call for the workers to bring in female comrades to potentially change the material and thus alleviate their falling sales. We see two organizations effected differently by the presence or lack of the female body, and thus the nature of woman operates on a grand scale in Trap Street, leading all men and their endeavors astray. Basically, the film runs like a classic but extremely subdued film noir where a potentially menacing female leads an unsuspecting man down a dark path.

As intriguing as Qu’s debut happens to be, there’s a marked coldness in respect to our main characters. We learn virtually nothing of the beautiful Guan Lifen, while little sympathy is mustered for hopelessly naive Li. But at its best, Trap Street plays like the quiet warning of the powerful unseen forces of supposedly forgotten practices that never really went away.

Reviewed on September 6 at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Discovery Programme.
93 Mins

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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