Directed by Vivian Qu (2013)
A harrowing film of surveillance and state repression that somehow was made within China about China, and is now languishing without any real distribution outside of it. I saw "Trap Street" at the 2014 San Francisco International film fest and won’t soon forget it. It’s a love story gone terribly awry, in which the protagonist Li Qiuming works with his fussy road crew partner doing map-making surveying all over the major Chinese city of Nanjing. On the side, Quiming helps to install hidden cameras in various places like bars and health spas – setting up one of the film’s most delicious (while obvious) ironies. He spots an attractive businesswoman, Guan Lifen, through the lens of his surveying equipment, and ratchets up his obsession with her in a hurry – following her to her workplace, staking her out when she leaves and ultimately tracking her down and wooing her to begin a tentative, if quite genuine-seeming romance.
Her place of employment within a plain-looking building is impossible to get into, though Qiuming tries, up to and including throwing rocks at the windows. Strangely enough, the small street she works on doesn’t show up on the map crew’s GPS-assisted data. Early on we learn it’s a “trap street”, meaning it’s deliberately left off of maps for reasons best known to the Chinese authorities.
“Trap streets” have a less nefarious reason for existing as well; they’re sometimes false streets that are deliberately entered onto maps by surveying companies and their publishers in order to “trap” any rival publishers who might try and sell copies of maps featuring it, while passing it off as their own surveying work. The film, obviously, inverts this meaning and makes it something far more sinister.
Just as we’re getting to really enjoy the cutesy amusement-park-and-zoo courtship of Quiming and Lifen, he’s suddenly abducted, beaten and placed into confinement within an urban village. Turns out his visits to the trap street to look for Lifen weren’t exactly welcomed by her mysterious place of employment, and it then stands to reason that her delayed gratification at his courtship of her isn’t particularly real, either. Did he do anything to merit his treatment? Not in the least – he’s an exceptionally sympathetic, if naïve, character – but the film turns ominous and foreboding, as the sense of injustice and the all-seeing eye of the state hangs heavy over the film.
It ends ambiguously, as well – which makes it all the more delightfully creepy. At our showing, the filmmaker Vivian Qu did a Q&A afterward, and was asked about getting approval for the film to play in her native country. While she tried to put her best face on it, it was clear she wasn’t holding her breath. An excellent gander at the modern Chinese ecosystem of money-making capitalism, 21st-century technology and 20th-century state dominance over personal and private affairs.