Yesterday I finally saw Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" based on a story by Shanghai writer, Eileen Chang. The movie left such an impression on me, I just knew I had to grab a copy of "Lust, Caution" to see how true the movie was to the story. Besides that, I was very curious to read something by Eileen Chang. I had read that she was a Chinese wordsmith, a linguistic queen with a vocabulary so large she regaled her readers with a bewildering panoply of baroque names for ornaments, fabrics, plants, and bric-a-brac, many of which have become remote and quaint to us. But the most gratifying moments of Chang's prose belong to the many deliciously refreshing and always piquant metaphors and similes that enliven the descriptive passages between saucy and spirited dialogue. Now which reader can pass up such delicious-sounding prose? Certainly not me!
Lust, Caution is the title story of a collection of five stories, most of which were published in the 1940s when Eileen Chang was in her 20s. The title story, which was begun in the 1950s and not published until 1979, is set in China, during the Japanese occupation in World War II.
This is the story in a nutshell: A young student and actress named Wong Chia Chi has agreed to be the central figure in the assassination of a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee. Using the alias of Mak Tai Tai (Mrs. Ma) and the fictional Mr. Mak, Wong befriends Mr. Yee's wife, Yee Tai Tai, and eventually seduces her husband in order to kill him. However, just as she is about to have him killed, something unexpected happens which changes the course of both their lives. I cannot reveal exactly what happens because that would a huge spoiler!
As I couldn't find a copy of "Lust,Caution" at the library or even at my local bookstore, I downloaded the story from audible.com. It had a very short running time, only 90 mins, so the fact that it was made into a full length feature film (run time: two and a half hours) is perhaps a testament to the author's wonderful prose and plot. Chang has this way of giving the reader so much information but without being too wordy. She has also mastered the art of giving the reader the illusion that the prose and the pace is unhurried and leisurely when in actual fact there is a lot that is happening on every page! Besides the stylistic prose, the irresistible themes of lust, love, betrayal, kinship, jealousy, espionage etc. keep the reader (or listener) mesmerized.
Having said that all that, however,I benefited greatly by seeing Ang Lee's film first. The film provides a good historical background to the story, something that the story itself neglects to do, it also provides more background information on the characters. The story does make references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the apathy of the people of Hongkong to the plight of the displaced people of Canton, but it's choppy and probably would require that the reader google some of the events to get a better idea of that time in history. However, the story is a treat to read and Chang's sparkling and witty dialogues are not to be missed...but if you want to enjoy it fully, watch the movie too!