Lust, Caution, and Eileen Chang: A Posting from Darrell William Davis

Darrell William Davis; blog postingWe invited film scholars to comment on films relating to their work. In this posting, Darrell William Davis, coauthor with Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh of Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island, considers Ang Lee’s recent film Lust, Caution and its adaptation of an Eileen Chang short story.

The issue of Real Sex became a point in discussion of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, an adaptation of Eileen Chang’s short story, “Se, jie.” In his film, Ang Lee sought to raise the bar, prompting questions about the nature of these scenes. One is invited to ponder the couple’s identities, whether it’s actual people Tang Wei and Tony Leung Chiu-wai doing the deed and not just characters, Wang Chia-chih and Mr. Yee. “Did they or didn’t they?” was a common refrain in the comment and debate following the movie’s release. In response Lee was coy, saying only “did you watch the film?” This matches the story’s stress on dissembling, masquerade and performance as cruel, even exploitative forms of aggression. Last week, Tang Wei paid a price when state media authorities ordered a blackout of the actress’s appearance for a skin cream ad. Ang Lee responded by publicly consoling her and questioning the order.

The director asserts that Eileen Chang “understood playacting and mimicry as something by nature cruel and brutal: animals, like her characters, use camouflage to evade their enemies and lure their prey” (Chang 2007: 61). Scriptwriter James Schamus invokes Zizek to explain further: Yee wants Wang not in spite of his suspicion, but “it is precisely because he suspects her that he desires her. . . . And so lust and caution are, in Chang’s work, functions of each other, not because we desire what is dangerous, but because our love is, no matter how earnest, an act, and therefore always an object of suspicion” (64).

Yet such graphic, (possibly) actual sex scenes could be a misstep. For me it is jarring, a sudden jolt in a stylish period film about wartime espionage. It thrusts ‘contemporary’ into a rich historical setting. Possibly, it disrespects Chang by displacing her theatrical/literary themes onto clinical displays of anatomy and copulation. The film “has its way” with Chang, as all films do, selecting and magnifying details that disclose the tale’s deepest meanings. Paul Theroux uses just this expression to describe the adaptation of his novel The Mosquito Coast: “Isn’t the whole point about a good movie that it takes liberties?” (Theroux 333). Ang Lee’s film strangely exemplifies Chang’s story through betrayals, guiding viewers’ attention to elements that may (or may not) be there. Ian McEwan (Atonement) said adaptation for the screen is “a kind of demolition job,” 130,000 words of a novel boiled down to 20,000 for a screenplay (Lemire). Of course this was not the way for Lee, Wang and Schamus, who expanded, not demolished, Chang’s short story with its many additions, such as a Japanese teahouse, movie theatre scenes, and raw sexuality.   

Eileen Chang; Written on WaterAng Lee’s decision to shoot graphic sex scenes allowed him to internalize and digest the lessons of Lust, Caution, consuming its spirit but also channeling its effects into different senses. Schamus reminds viewers to remember that they are making a movie: “The primary task is to make sure the movie is good, not to make sure you’re faithful to any part of the underlying work. That doesn’t mean you’re disrespectful—far from it” (Lemire). Lust, Caution is a good movie but one can’t help think the filmmakers are playing one-upmanship, demonstrating a cinematic sensuality implicit in Chang’s story, but expanded and fulfilled in the indexical substance of film.

Theroux, again, describes this in cheeky theological terms:

“I [the novelist] had dreamed it all. But they had to tangibalize it, as Father Divine used to say. You have to agree with God: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made Flesh. It is not always an easy transition, but that is cinematic transubstantiation, the making of movies out of novels” (338)

Making word flesh is clearly what Ang Lee did with Chang’s Lust, Caution but a flesh that literally bares the devices of seduction and conquest. They tangibalized Chang but also cannibalized her, exposing to all (or nearly all, for PRC viewers got a censored print) a ruthless incorporation of Chang’s allusions.

One can only imagine what Eileen Chang would have thought of the film, and its controversies. Lust, Caution was a failure in the US ($4.6m vs. ten times that in Asia) but this would have interested her little. Of American viewers, Ang Lee said at an event in Lincoln Center “they just didn’t get it,” suggesting historical complexities and nuances Westerners were likely to miss, even with the lure of explicit sex. Maybe the reason Lee’s film was loved in Asia (and ignored in America) was its implied biography: not only an adaptation of Chang’s story, but a luminous treatment of her real life. Recall that Chang herself became a scriptwriter, though her films were light comedies with witty, sparkling dialogue. She admired Ernst Lubitsch, whose famous “touch” is far from the brooding paranoia of Ang Lee’s film.

Chang’s essays, Written on Water, are whimsical and unlike the film, except maybe her fascination with ephemera. “If memory has a smell, it is the scent of camphor, sweet and cozy like remembered happiness, sweet and forlorn like forgotten sorrow” (“A Chronicle of Changing Clothes,” 65). Chang had a gift for conjuring wistful evanescence, its light caress and casual desolation, what can only be the delicious chill of captivation. Lee’s film does pause, with lovely reflective moments like a mannequin in a shop window, the glint of a pink diamond, a figure taking shape in the pane of glass.

About writing essays, Chang said it was easy compared to scriptwriting: “Writing drama is another matter altogether, because the original work soon becomes entangled in all sorts of complex forces I am unable really to understand. The more I think about the problems presented by finding a director and a group of performers I could trust . . . the more my head spins.” (“Let’s Go! Let’s Go Upstairs,” 99). But she also seemed to believe in some sort of fate. She wrote, “When you meet the one among the millions, when amid millions of years, across the borderless wastes of time, you happen to catch him or her, neither a step too early nor a step too late, what else is there to do except to ask softly, ‘So you’re here, too?’” (“Love,” 79). Here is an author musing on things so farfetched she can’t quite allow herself the luxury to marvel, skipping the improbability of expectations fulfilled, and remaining content with a commonplace.

Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution. Afterward by Ang Lee, Special Essay by James Schamus. New York: Anchor books, 2007.
Eileen Chang. Written on Water trans. Andrew Jones. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Lemire, C. “You’ve read the book, now make the movie” South China Morning Post, Jan 20 2008 p. 7
Theroux, Paul. Fresh-Air Fiend: Travel Writings 1985-2000. Penguin, 2000.

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