Tag Archives: Eileen Chang

Ang Lee’s expansion of Eileen Chang’s “Lust, Caution”

I really don’t know what Ang Lee (Lee Ang in Asian word order) meant when he wrote that “no other writer has used the Chinese language as cruelly” as Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing in pinyin, 1920-1995) did. The controversial film he made of Chang’s story “Se, jie” that has been translated into English as “Lust, Caution” portrays some rather graphic and pretty rough sex between the 45-year-old Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), the head of the intelligence service of the Shanghai Japanese puppet government of Wang Jingwei, and Wong Chiachih (Wei Tang in a sensational screen debut), a college-student actress whose role is to lure him into a trap so that he can be eliminated by Chinese nationalist patriots.


He is using her as a concubine — though Chiachih is the guest or Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), an inveterate mahjong player — and concubines are entitled to flashy rings (and other jewelry). She aims to inflame his lust so that he can be killed, though she lacks strong political or patriotic convictions. She also has no experience of sexual love or passion-management.

Because her role is that of a married woman (the wife of a Hong Kong businessman, a category very plausibly apolitical) she is deflowered in a totally unromantic and instrumental way (by a fellow actor turned patriot or terrorist, a distinction depending on the side). Mr. Yee wants her, and she has strong feelings, oscillating between love and hate, for him. He uses her very roughly, awakening strong masochism in her.

The film adds an unrequited and mutual love between Chiachih and Kuan Yumin (pop star Lee-Hom Wang), who was her director in a patriotic melodrama before the Japanese conquered Hong Kong and is also the director of the amateur assassins.

In Chang’s story, the group is reassembled at the behest of Mr. Wu (Tou Chunghua, who starred in Hou Hsiaohsien “The Boys from Fengkuei”), a Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) agent in Shanghai who learns that Chiachih has befriended Mrs. Yee and might be able to get the very cautious Mr. Yee into a place where he can be killed. In the film adaptation, the group kills a “running dog” of the Japanese (very, very ineptly and therefore gruesomely) and are bailed out of (in 1938, not yet conquered by the Japanese) Hong Kong.

The film adds a scene of Mr. Wu, Kuan Yumin, and Chiachih telling both of them details of what she is doing and feeling with Mr. Wu that neither of the patriotic men wants to hear. For me, this scene is the hinge of the film and makes the reversal(s) ahead more comprehensible than it is in Chang’s very terse story.

I was asked if the graphic sex was necessary. Given that the first word of the title is “lust,” I think so, though what Chiachih says to those who have sent her on her mission of seduction is likely to make viewers as uncomfortable as it does her interlocutors within the scene. And Chang (who worked on the story for nearly three decades) did not specify that the sexual connection was (or verged on being) sadomasochistic.

I think that To and Wang are extremely good, as is Ko Yue-Lin as Liang Junsheng, the member of the group with some sexual experience who must deflower Chiachih for the sake of China (diffidently and passionlessly—condoned by Kuan Yumin, despite his feelings for her). Both the “romantic leads” seem affectless to me. Their sexual congress involves some contorted positions, but their faces remain blank in and out of bed. The movie (not just the sex) is utterly joyless.

Joan Chen does not have much to do, but does that well. Tony Leung (Leung Chui-Wai) has played many heavily conflicted lovers (for Wong Karwai and others). Playing a selfish villain goes against his iconic image. He is able to bring some of his trademark melancholic self-loathing, and some diffidence — at least in scenes with his wife and her circle of mahjong addicts. Mr. Yee knows (by 1942) that the Japanese are going to lose and will be unable to protect him in the long run. He does not know the extent to which his affair with Chiachih is risking his life (and career), but he is intrigued at stimulating strong feelings — even if it expressed hate rather than love.

Leung does not go over to the dark side to the extent that Henry Fonda, for instance, did in “Once Upon a Time in America.” Mr. Yee signs death warrants and shows not the slightest remorse for anything, but at least for me, he never completely breaks out of the web of sympathy accumulated in a quarter of a century of film roles. I mean, he is despicable and has the grace to despise himself to some degree, but he is also the victim and being used. (In terms of Kantian ethics, her use of him is more instrumental than his use of her is.)

I guess that Mr. Yee cannot be a complete monster for the plot to work, so maybe the ethical grayness of assassinating an executioner is exactly what Leung needed to do. There is even one point at which he is moved (by Chiachih’s sining/acting in a geisha house). I don’t understand why he tortured himself to lose weight to look emaciated, since there is no basis for that in Chang’s story. (I don’t know if starving himself was his idea or Lee’s)


I’m not convinced the film deserved a NC-17 rating. The sex is what makes sense of what happens, that is, the story and there is no full-frontal nudity, male or female.

Lee generally takes his (and viewers’!) time. The first half hour in particular drags. Perhaps the pace was intended to illustrate the “caution” in the title?

BTW, there is one sequence in which Yee is in a geisha house in the Japanese quarter to which he has summoned Chiachih that has a Japanese hostess and some very drunk Japanese army officers, one of whom paws Chiachih. Mr. Yee’s office is in a complex under the KMT flag, though the leader of his would-be assassins, Mr. Wu, is also a KMT (Jiang Kai-Shek rather than Wang Jingwei) operative.

The neo-Romantic (sometimes neo-Wagnerian) music by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen, Girl with a Pearl Earring) has made the soundtrack album a big seller. The art direction by Joel Chong and others is outstanding, and done full justice by Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot “Brokeback Mountain” for Lee (also Amores Perros, Frida, 21 Grams, Babel, and Alexander).

Lee’s team is very international. I already knew that Tony Leung speaks flawless English and expected that Ko Yue-Lin Wang Leehom did (Ko graduated from Williams, Wang is American-born). In the “making of” featurette, Wei Tang (born in Zhejiang) acquits herself well, if less confidently in English. I’d have liked to hear more from Ang Lee and James Schamus — as in their commentary track for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” What the cast members, Schamus and Prieto say, and what is shown of shooting the film are interesting but relentlessly positive about everyone else (what I call a “We all loved each other SO much” making-of featurette).


©2008, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Falling in love with the traitor she seduced to kill

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