It’s been a wish to read something by Eileen Chang for a long time and the impetus to read Lust, Caution was heightened by the prize winning movie directed by Ang Lee. I read the book, then watched the movie.
Eileen Chang’s novels write about the tensions set between men and women in love. Although set in a period where Shanghai is occupied by Japanese, I like that many of the short stories collection do not have a heavy political agenda about China. It was a welcome stray off the beaten path of stories about oppressed Communist China regime, defection and tribulations; which in recent years depict a one-dimensional picture of Chinese translated literature.
I am still amazed how director Ang Lee did an amazing job of making a movie out of a short story. It reminded me of the book and movie of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I think movie directors get so much out of short story as it gives them the liberty to fill in the gaps that a short story could never do.
As I talk about the storyline, I will be overlapping what I read in the book and saw in the movie. The movie is of course visually more powerful.
It is 1940’s Shanghai. Young, naïve and beautiful Jiazhi (in the movie spelt Chia Chi) spends her days playing mah-jong and drinking tea with high society ladies in Shanghai. While war is raging outside, the ladies talked about the carats of their diamond rings and who should do the rounds of banquet invitation next.
Jiazhi’s life is a front. A patriotic student radical posing as Mrs Mai, married to a businessman. Her mission is to seduce a powerful employee of the occupying government (a Chinese collaborator to the Japanese government, Mr. Yee) and lead him to the assassin’s bullet. The process took 2 years (in the book) and 3 years (in the movie) for Jiazhi to get acquainted and then earned Mr. Yee’s trust. Mr. Yee’s masochism shines through more in the movie, as heavy handling interrogation and torture is his speciality and he trusts no one. Not even his past mistresses.
Yet as Jiazhi waits for him to arrive to meet at their liaison, Jiazhi begins to wonder if she is cut out to be a femme fatale and coldly take Mr Yee to his death. Or is she beginning to fall in love with him?
The short story has managed to build the climax leading to Jiazhi’s trap, framing Mr. Yee for her colleagues’ ambush. I read the book, watched the movie and felt compelled to read the book again just to notice the details from the movie. I must say the movie brilliantly provides a better context and inner turmoil of Jiazhi. From the innocent young Jiazhi to the loss of her innocence and became a powdered-face, heavy make-up of Jiazhi’s double persona as Mrs. Mai, the transition is heart wrenching.
The movie portrays a sad case of a gender ruled mostly by heart and another by power.
He (Mr Yee) was not optimistic about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy – without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively – as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead, she was his ghost. – page 35
Although the first Lust, Caution short story took a better part of my review, I thought Chang’s other short stories in the same book are just as good. I like the story Great Felicity, as a girl from a lower class prepare for her marriage to the upper echelon and invited critics from her in-laws. In Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Autumn is about the life of a live-in servant and her flamboyant western expatriate employer, how she has to be the conspirator to cover her employer’s back from a persistent admirer called Miss Li as she raises her son Baishun at the same time. Traces of Love is about a second wife Dunfeng who has to endure her husband’s loyalty to his first wife, who is ailing. While accepting that she married for money, all relationships are frayed and patched up, the women in Eileen Chang’s world, make the best of what they have got.
Lust, Caution is a powerful movie. The soundtrack by French composer Alexandre Desplat particularly the score Wong Chia Chi’s theme was used at another favourite movie of mine, a Spanish movie titled Biutiful played by Javier Bardem. Since Lust, Caution came first, I could only conclude that Biutiful decided to use the same musical score but interestingly the composer was cited as Gustavo Santaolalla. The more savvy youtube users have spotted that it was the Wong Chia Chi’s theme from Lust, Caution.
I thought the entire soundtrack of Lust, Caution was haunting and sublimed brilliant.
Compare the above or find the similarity with this movie soundtrack below!
Read the book. The book is only 159 pages including Editor’s afterword. Most rewarding of all, watch the movie.
The Asylum: The best tribute I can pay the stories in Lust, Caution is that although Chang’s style took some getting used to, I found myself wanting more and more as there were fewer and fewer left.
A movie review by Arti@Ripple Effects
Paperback. Publisher: Penguin Modern Classic 2007, originally published 1944 to 1979; Printed Length: 320 pages; Setting: 1940’s Shanghai, China. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading on: 1 April 2013, Monday.
About the writer:
Eileen Chang ( 张爱玲) (September 30, 1920 – September 8, 1995) was a Chinese writer. Her most famous works include Lust, Caution and Love in a Fallen City.
She is noted for her fiction writings that deal with the tensions between men and women in love, and are considered by some scholars to be among the best Chinese literature of the period. Chang’s portrayal of life in 1940s Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong is remarkable in its focus on everyday life and the absence of the political subtext which characterised many other writers of the period. Poet and University of Southern California professor Dominic Cheung commented “had it not been for the political division between the Nationalist and Communist Chinese, she would have almost certainly won a Nobel Prize”.
Chang’s enormous popularity and famed image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, tragedy, increasing reclusiveness, and ultimately her sudden death from cardiovascular disease at age 74.
Thank you for this thorough and insightful review. You’re right about making a movie out of a short story in that you can fill in the blanks. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few good ones like that, adapted from a short story, more room for the imaginary. Also, good that you point out the similarity if not the same musical theme from the two movies. Hmm… just wondering how they could do that. Maybe for that one particular track they’ve acknowledged Desplat… no?
As for the lack of political rhetorics regarding Communist China, I can only say that was before they took over the country. However, you’re right about the seemingly suppressed political view. But I think the very human story of a Chinese woman battling passions and patriotism is bringing the Indo-Japanese war to a minute human level. Another movie comes to mind, and I think you’d most likely seen it: The White Countess, original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (yes, the Booker-winning British-Japanese novelist). It also has the setting in Japanese occupied Shanghai. I wrote about it upon Natasha Richardson tragic death. In case you’re interested, here’s the post.
Again, thank you for this wonderful review of Lust, Caution, book and movie. Keep them coming! 🙂
Thanks for dropping by. What I meant was most Chinese Lit these days are set against the Cultural revolution in Communist China. Recalled Lisa See’s Shanghai Girl, Wild Swans, and many others I have seen. I would prefer to read about China before Chairman Mao came to power.
The only Ishiguro’s book I know which is set in Shanghai is When We Were Orphans. Thanks for letting me know. If Ralph Fiennes is in it, that’s fine by me!
Yes, I get what you mean now. And I agree the WWII period of China could well be a good source of stories. As for The White Countess, it’s not based on any novels or short stories. It’s an original screenplay written by Ishiguro and a Merchant Ivory production. Remember The Remains of the Day? That could well be where they got acquainted. It’s not as good as that, but it’s still watchable. I have the DVD, and the special features are most precious now. Ralph Fiennes? He’s going to be Dickens in an upcoming film… lots to see and read. 😉
Indeed it is lots to see and read! 🙂 While cultural revolution has served as a setting for many Chinese Literature and biography (I am recalling books like Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cun Xin, Waiting Ha Jin, Beijing Coma and Red Dust by Ma Jian), it dawns on me that there are Chinese literature out there which are not based on this era, such as Shan Sa (the Girl who played Go, Empress), Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Su Tong’s novels etc). I think for me, it is reminding myself where to look!
Thanks for the tip on Dickens and Ralph Fiennes. 😉
Here’s a list of books that are currently being adapted into films to be released in the coming year or two. The Invisible Woman is the Ralph Fiennes film.