Insofar as there could be a Jane Austen of 1930s and 40s Shanghai, it was Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing in pinyin, 1920-1995). That is, she wrote about love relationships — “chicklit” if you will — during very turbulent times, mostly not mentioning the macro-level disturbances. As translator Julia Lovell wrote in introducing her translation of Chang’s novella “Se, jie” as “Lust, Caution,” “Although her [politically] disengaged stance was in part dictated by Japanese censorship in Shanghai, it was also infused with an innate skepticism of the often overblown revolutionary rhetoric that many of her fellow writers had adopted…. War is no more than an incidental backdrop, helping to create exceptional situations and circumstances in which bittersweet affairs of the heart are played out.” Chang defended her focus, writing, “Though my characters are not heroes, they are the ones who bear the burden of our age.”
The world of patriotism and armed struggle more than impinges on the protagonist of “Lust, Caution,” Wang Chia-Chih, however. At the start of the story she is a houseguest in Shanghai of Mrs. Yee who whiles away her life shopping and playing mahjong. The latter is the wife of Mr. Yee (no given name is ever mentioned), who is the head of the secret police in Wang Ching-Wei’s collaborationist/puppet government.
The story opens and closes with Mrs. Yee playing mahjong with rich friends. The reader learns that Wang Chia-Chih was the star actress of her class of students in Hong Kong and was recruited by other students who were fervently anti-Japanese and wanted to assassinate Mr. Yee while he was in Hong Kong (before the Japanese conquered Hong Kong).
Chia-Chih’s role was to seduce Mr. Yee, so that the others could kill him, an exemplary punishment of a traitor (“quisling” has become the word in English based on the Norwegian Nazi collaborator example). The role concocted for her is that of the wife of a businessman, played by another actor. The only member of the group who can drive undertakes playing the chauffeur and the only one with any sexual experience deflowers Chia-Chih.
Mr. Yee suddenly leaves Hong Kong, but a Kuomintang agent in Shanghai, Mr. Wu, learns of the connection made and the group reassembles and the plot is de facto revived.
Chia-Chih plays her part well, and like any good concubine, she is to be rewarded with a ring by Mr. Yee, and the murder is set around Chiah-Chih and Mr. Yee going to an Indian jeweler. Having no experience of love — and only a very mechanical experience of sex to enable her to pass as a married woman — she cannot tell if she has fallen in love with the Enemy she is engaged in setting up to be killed.
Most of the story is this setup. Ang Lee’s NC-17-rated 2007 film adaptation film makes sense of the very terse backstory. About two hours of the film elaborates in flashbacks what is only a few paragraphs in Chang’s story. I don’t think I would have understood some of the implications Chang threw out in passing, so that seeing the film before reading the story seems a good course. The most riveting scene in the movie — a meeting of Chia-Chih, Kuang Yumin (the head of the conspirators), and Mr. Wu is not in the original story at all. There is also nothing about the kind of sex Chia-Chih had with Mr. Yee in the story, nor is Mr. Yee described as being skinny (so I don’t understand why Tony Leung had to take off weight for the part!).
The story is definitely shorter than the film. The film is novelistic (as Ang Lee’s film of “Brokeback Mountain” was, along with his adaptations of novels Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Riding with the Devil. (I recall that John Ford said that it was better to flesh out short stories than to distill novels, though three of the four films for which he won Oscars were adaptations of novels, two of them quite sprawling novels.)
The part of Chang’s story that seems to have interested Ang Lee — at least judging by his aferword to the publication of the story as a book — is part that he could not film: in Chinese (Lee uses pinyin), “Wei bu dzuo chung.” This Chinese conception is that the ghost of someone killed by a tiger works for the tiger, helping to lure more prey into his path.
In both story and film, Mr. Yee knows that the Japanese rule is not going to last and that without Japanese protection he will be executed for his more-than-willing collaboration. “But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy—without regret…. 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.”
Ang Lee discusses this soul possession notion in his afterword. (He also asserted that “no other writer has used the Chinese language as cruelly” as Chang, and that no other story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as this one. If her use of language was cruel in Chinese, this has not been replicated in the translation, though I think it more likely that it is not really the language use that is cruel in Chinese either). Lee’s usual scriptwriter/producer, James Schamus, takes up the question “Why Did She Do It?”, a question that cannot be answered.
The movie runs 157 minutes; the story occupies only 54 pages (with text that is only 5 1/4″ by s 1/4″. Lee and Schamus each add three pages, Julia Lovell ten. This seems quite slight to make a book, as was the case for turning Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” into a book. In that case, the story was already available in a collection of Proulx Wyoming stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, and there was a volume with the screenplay, the original story, and essays by those involved in adapting the story to the screen. There is a screenplay plus original story plus essays edition of “Lust, Caution” (and Chang’s story is not available in Love in a Fallen City, the collection in English of Chang’s Shanghai stories.
Re the title: Since there does not seem to be anything I would characterize as “lust” in the story (the film is another matter!), I asked two native speakers of Chinese about the translation of Chang’s title. They felt that “lust” was a reasonable translation, though “seduction” would be as good, but that the disjuncture is not in Chinese. “Forbidden lust” and “Forbidden seduction” were their suggestions as translations of the title. The liaison that is central to the story (and that bears more than a casual relationship to Chang’s marriage with a prominent collaborator) is a perilous one for both of them. Hers was, as it were, “licensed” as a patriotic duty, his was exceedingly unwise. Caution was Mr. Yee’s general m.o., but love and/or lust often involves jettisoning caution and rational calculation. Both were “playing with fire.” More than one got burned in the instrumental use of sex/love.
©2008, 2018, Stephen O. Murray