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[108] Lust, Caution – Eileen Chang

lust2.jpgThis post will wrap up all I have to say about the book and the story. This is a book review, please click here for the film review. Note this book review might be spoiler for the film.

Lust, Caution is a short story that was originally published in the Chinese language in 1979. Eileen Chang began writing the espionage thriller teeming with love’s turmoil in the early 1950s and came back to work through the resolving details in the 1970s, imbuing to her already mocking tone and acrimonious words an autobiographical touch. For Chang herself, like the heroine Wang Chia Chih, entered into a liaison with a member of the resistance government after Hong Kong fell, but she painfully broke off relations with him on discovery of his adultery, after years of her providing financial succor.

Wang Chia Chih has been an active member of the drama club at the university. While at college in Canton (now Guangzhou), on the eve of surrender, she has starred in a stirring of rousingly patriotic history plays. Before Hong Kong falls to the Japanese on December 25, 1941 (black Christmas), the drama troupe has given one last performance. When leader of the cliche, Kuang Yu Min strikes up friendship with an aide to Wong Ching Wei, the man who will soon negotiate with the Japanese over forming a collaborationist government in China, Kuang is seized with a whim to hunt down traitors. He plans to stage a real drama–a honey trap–for one Mr. Yee. As Mr. Yee is in the espionage business himself, he suspects conspiracies even when they don’t exist. Any indiscretion is out of the question, which means, preparation allows no room for a tiny mistake.

Wang Chia Chih will act as a bait that will guide Yee toward an assassin’s bullet. She will be the fatal seductress who presents herself as a wife of a wealthy business, befriends Yee’s wife, infiltrates the Yee’s social life. Her priority is to win his trust and appear credible, even if the liaison will entail sadistic sexual affair. (Obviously Ang Lee has visualized what Chang has implied in between the lines.) After the first attempt has reached a dead end, she resolves to see it through years later when she reconnects with the troupe in Shanghai. The plan takes an unexpected turn as Wang’s (disguised as Mai Tai-tai) romantic misjudgment leads her to gullible attachment to an emotionally unprincipled and sterile political animal. Despite her fierce skepticism toward her feeling in love with him, she finds herself unable to refute the notion entirely, since she has never been love.

She has sacrificed her virginity for this patriotic cause.

This skeptical disavowal and subversion of transcendent values–patriotism, love, and trust–expresses Chang’s ambivalent view of the human heart. Far beyond its specific autobiographical resonances, Lust, Caution serves as a riposte to the needling criticisms by her literary contemporaries that she has written way outside of mainstream, sidelining big, significant issues like nation, progress, war and revolution. Unlike most of her other works in which war and politics constitute no more than an incidental backdrop, helping to create exceptional situations, Lust, Caution puts all these issues in the spotlight but still manages to delineate plausibly, complex, conflicted individuals whose confusions, frustrations, disappointments and selfishness amount to a strong socialist realism during a turbulent political period.

5 Responses

  1. This is a period that has interested me in the last few years. Well, actually, I guess I’ve had an interest in much of the history of China as presented in novels and memoirs. I skimmed the last bit of the review…afraid of spoilers, but this sounds good!

  2. jenclair:
    I’m very much interested in this time period too. My grandparents used to tell me stories from the war, which intrigued me to find out more. This is a nice little story, full of suspense. It makes my heart throb!

  3. […] at the Embarcadero Theater. He didn’t know I have watched Lust, Caution and have read the novel 5 times. So we ended up watching Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling gives an […]

  4. […] Posted on April 21, 2009 by Matthew “They’re supporting that Wong Chang Wai [see Lust Caution by Eileen Chang] chap, who the Japanese installed in China. I’ve heard Dominick has been seen […]

  5. […] is only available in Chinese language. American readers might be more familiar with her novella, Lust, Caution, which was made into motion picture directed by Ang Lee. Recently when I found a copy of The […]

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