A map, of whatever kind, is at the same time both story and mystery. As much as the lines and dots and labels may tell us that this is here, and this is here, and this is here, all the space between those lines and dots is a blank just waiting to be filled in. All maps, no matter how detailed, leave plenty of room for secrets.
A trap street is a nonexistent or wrongly represented street inserted by a map company in their product with the purpose of catching counterfeiters. If a counterfeiter’s map includes the false street in the same position, they’ve been caught in the “trap” set by the more reputable mapmaker. The honest map company has done the legwork, has invested time and money in locating every single street and landmark from scratch.
The folks who actually do that legwork are digital mapmakers toting laptops and infrared reflectors, as well as yellow doohickeys on tripods, called total stations, which measure angles and distances electronically. The data they collect could end up in a paper map or guidebook, but more often, these days, it hangs out as information available for recall, either for an online map service or for a GPS-driven electronic device such as a smartphone or street navigator.
The lead character of the Chinese film Shuyin Jie (Trap Street), which showed this past week as part of the 2014 Indy Film Fest, is just such a mapmaker in training. As the film begins, Li Qiuming is sighting through the scope of his total station when he spots a beautiful, sophisticated, young woman heading down a dead-end street called Forest Lane. Forest Lane does not appear on the map section that Qiuming and his partner and mentor are surveying, so Qiuming notes the street’s coordinates to be added to the master map.
Oddly, but not so disappointingly for Qiuming, the system rejects the street’s data. Meanwhile, he and his partner have moved onto a new district. “Forget Forest Lane,” his partner urges Qiuming, “There is no reason.” These things happen, he seems to indicate. No sense digging for explanations. But Quiming, hoping for another glimpse of the woman, will seize on any pretext to return to Forest Lane. And return they do.
With the help of a coincidental downpour, Qiuming ends up giving the woman a ride home from Forest Lane. Also coincidentally—or maybe not—she leaves a small case in the car containing two USB drives, her name, and number. Qiuming contacts her to arrange its return, but is met at the rendezvous by a man, named Xie Bo, who claims to be her supervisor. Xie thanks Qiuming for his honesty, and offers to write a letter of commendation to Qiuming’s employer. Qiuming is clearly not getting anything more from Xie. He returns again to Forest Lane.
At this point, I kept expecting the unmapped street to yield some kind of adventure, maybe even a romance of the largely frustrated kind. In the novel Veronica by Nicholas Christopher, the main character meets the Veronica of the title at “the improbable point where Waverly Place crosses Waverly Place,” and is drawn into a web of fantastic intrigues and connections disobeying both time and space. In Daniel Pinkwater’s book The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Walter Galt and Winston Bongo wander through an unusual and entirely unfamiliar section of their city that lies just blocks away from their home neighborhood. Having never turned onto that particular street, they never knew it existed. Throughout the book, they keep looking, and therefore they keep finding.
The idea being that magic is all around us, if you only you care to stumble upon it. I was eager to see this film run with that.
But those books I mentioned both take place in a made-up America. This film takes place in a realistic, contemporary China, and perhaps because of this, or perhaps because it is not the job of every filmmaker to satisfy my whims, the story takes a different turn.
Qiuming, we learn, has his own secret life, installing video cameras for cash under the table and sweeping hotel rooms in search of surveillance equipment. Along with his obsession with the woman from Forest Lane and her officially nonexistent workplace, he has stumbled upon a trap street of a completely different kind, and will end up in a fix that wouldn’t seem out of place in a David Mamet movie.
Mamet’s films House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and Spartan all came to mind. If you’ve seen any of those pictures, you know the kind of thing to expect. It’s may also be true that in a country where political repression is still a commonplace occurrence, what looks like noir to me is just a simple, sad slice of life.
There’s a scrap of love-story left to play out in Trap Street. But I wouldn’t set my heart on it.
Trap Street was directed by Vivian Qu. It was nominated for numerous prizes at festivals around the world, and won the Grand Jury Prize in the Narrative Competition at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston.
Robin Beery lives in Indianapolis and is a Writer/Producer at Well Done Marketing.