Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang

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!


Angela in Europe said...

I've seen previews for this movie. Wondered if it was good or not. You enjoyed it?

Edi/Crazy Quilts blogger said...

I saw the movie in Taiwan and was able to purchase the book there as well. It was quite interesting to watch this with an Asian audience.

If you send me your address I can mail you the book.

edicampbell at gmail dot com

my blog:

fide said...


I came across your blog while googling some bollywood movie...and look what i found!
You are the first non-Chinese reader of Eileen Chang I've come across!
Quite interesting to know that there are indeed non-Chinese who read her. Keen to hear more!

Lotus Reads said...

@Angela ~ First of, Ang, sorry for getting to this so late. This movie was a very enjoyable one for me. I love Ang Lee, I love movies set in Shanghai in the '40's, I loved the sets, the plot, the acting....it was quite a treat. I would recommend it, I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Edi!

What a generous offer! Please tell me more about what it was like to view this movie with an Asian audience. I heard they censored the sex scenes in China, did they do that in Taiwan as well? I'd love to take you up on the offer of the book, but you know, it is a souvenir of your time in Taiwan and I don't want you to have to give it up. If we do, I'd love to make it a book exchange. You'll have to send me your wishlist maybe.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Fide and welcome!

After Ang Lee's "Lust,Caution" I am sure quite a few western readers have gone seeking something written by Eileen Chang. Her books are not that easy to get a whole hold of though and quite a few are still in the process of being translated into English, no? What are your favourite Eileen Chang novels?

fide said...

Hi Lotus,

I've been wanting to see how the English translation of Eileen Chang is like but weren't able to lay hold of any copy. How do you find the language?
You've mentioned yourself that she is apt with supplying her readers with detailed descriptions of ornaments, clothes, surroundings etc. Does this come across in the English?

Um..I can't really claim myself as a hardcore Chang fan. So my favourite is one of her most popular and well-known short--. I'm a sucker for romantic and happy endings, and at least this one has a (semi-)happy ending--as good as it gets in Chang's stories.

Overall Chang's world is too cold, and love & relationships are too calculated for my liking, or more like contrary to my belief/conviction. But she is so good that each time after reading her works, I'll end up convinced that it's a cold and indifferent world out there. LOL~

I have just read her autobiographical novel, (that's a literal translation XD), recently posthumously published in Taiwan. You might know about this? The publication itself is hugely controversial 'cause Chang has stated in her will that the novel is to be destroyed etc. And this became a huge debate about publishers ripping authors off, the whole Kafka/Max Brod anecdote, ought artists' will be respected in all circumstances, or do creative works acquire life of their own etc And a professor even wrote a comment/letter urging the public to boycott the book and the publisher. But the book became a bestseller anyway (probably more so because of this furore)
Anyway, the reason I mentioned it is because my friend told me that Chang first wrote the book in English, then translated it into Chinese herself. Initially I found it odd 'cause I never knew Chang wrote in English. But after I read the book it become obvious, there are passages where you can distinguish clearly the translated-from-English tone. It would be interesting if they ever published this book in English. I am so curiously to read her English writing. And you too will be able to read her in the original language!

Have you read anything else written by Chang?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Fide!

I so welcome your comments thank you! I tried to drop you a line on your blog as well but it wouldn't give me access. That's Ok, I will answer you here, except, it might be after Easter Sunday. Hope that's OK.

Talk to you soon!

fide said...

I just realise the web language of blogger will not display certain symbols. My favourite short of Chang's is "Love in a Fallen City".

Don't worry about promptness in reply. It is I who barge in here and raved on and on.. XD

Yea sorry about the profile/blog thing. I haven't really been using my blogger account so have locked it.

fide said...

Oops. And her autobiographical novel literally translates into "Little Reunion"

Sanjay said...

Ok after reading your description I so have to see this movie. Thank you for sharing and telling us how the movie provided a much needed perspective of history to Chang's story.
As I recall the movie did not do as well, but then it was also rated NC-17, which apparently is a huge negative (in the US) for a movie to succeed at the box office.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Fide!

No, this is my first Eileen Chang ever and it wasn't even the complete book of short stories, all I read was the title story "Lust and Caution" and it's mostly because Ang Lee seemed so in awe of her and I am so in awe of Ang Lee! :)

I tried all the online stores in Canada but was unable to get my hands on anything by Eileen Chang but finally I struck gold when I went to audible.com because they had the "Lust and Caution" story available for download.

She's tremendously gifted with words and her descriptions, but especially her dialogues, made me laugh out loud! She writes with such irreverence for people and things that you cannot help but smile! :)

Thanks for telling me about her biography "Little Reunion", I will definitely look for it. I remember reading about her on Wikipedia at the time I was writing this review and yes, they did mention she started to write in English after she went to the US. She also helped co-write the screenplays to some of her books that have been made into films. I'd love to get my hands on some of the other films that have been adapted for the screen from her stories. I read a synopsis for "Love in a Fallen City" and was drooling! I am going to make a supreme effort to find it!

I guess I am completely at a loss to list the hallmarks of her writing because I have read just one single story by her. I am going to ask my friend in Malaysia to look out for some Eileen Chang books for me. Which others would you recommend?

As always, thanks for dropping by and for the tremendous input! Have a wonderful start to your week!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanjay!

I really liked the movie. Do you have any idea why it didn't fare well here in the States? I know you say it's because of the NC-17 rating, but why is that rating so damaging to the success of a movie? Is it because the majority of cine goers are below 17??? Even as I type this it sounds ridiculous but that's the only sense I can make of it.

I thought it had a little of everything...love, intrigue, great locations, tremendous acting,an exciting time period and not to mention lots of passion! Would love feedback after you view it, thanks!