Monday, January 21, 2008

Comparing Lust | Caution with Lust | Caution... [Spoiler Alert]

[The below is partially written on 21 Jan 2008; I only finished the rest of the post and have this formally published on 20 April, 2008]

Have been meaning to post a review of the much-talked-about Ang Lee film since last Saturday, except that I was foiled by the untimely near-death of my beloved laptop, which meant that I spent the last few days scrambling to recover my life's work rather than leisurely composing my definitive take on one of the most controversial films of 2007 (or 2008, for that matter, since it only opened in Ireland earlier this month - ed: January). Because I have soooo much to say about the film - in spite of ALL that has already been written and talked about it - I'm breaking my temporary blog curfew to post this.

I of course have read all the hullabaloo about this film from the HK blogosphere, and have followed up on all the proper reviews by the major Western newspapers. Yet of all the reviews I've read, there was NOT A ONE of them who could meaningfully compare the movie version of Lust Caution with the short story version of Lust Caution. Yes, I saw the commentary about the real life inspiration behind Eileen Chang's short story; and yes, there was a blogger who did manage to quote 1 line from the original short story in interpreting the importance of sex in the film. But I came out of the cinema feeling like screaming: Did anybody actually bothered to read Eileen Chang's short story AT ALL??? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that nobody is qualified to comment on the film without having first read the story, but after the ocean of ink (virtual or otherwise) that has been spilt commenting on this movie from all four corners of the globe, I found it absolutely incredible that nobody thus far has meaningfully compared the plot and structure of the story to that presented on the silver screen. I mean, Ang Lee's previous effort, Brokeback Mountain (which I've also seen), based also on a short story (which I've also read), generated huge amounts of commentary as well, but these include a thorough dissection of how the short story was interpreted in cinematic form. In contrast, most commentators of Lust Caution focused primarily on the on-screen sex and, tangential to that, sexual politics and the tired does-he/she-love-him/her question. So much so, that another reviewer argued that the film has been completely misread and that the unusual presentation of geo-politics in the film - especially in its painting of the positive role of the KMT in China and yet still passing muster with Mainland Chinese censors - was actually its real achievement.

(ed: The above part was written back on Jan 21st, before news of the official reprimand of Tang Wei was reported. Subsequent to this interpretation of the movie as striking a blow for the KMT, it seems the Chinese authorities decided that the movie is not kosher after all and decided to vent their frustration at their own impotence and lack of foresight on the only person accessible to them, the lead actress from Mainland China, Tang Wei. She was later vilified as a traitor to her country for starring in a film that apparently glorified Chinese spies and the KMT. The whole thing is inherently unfair not only because of the usual Chinese political censorship of films, but for the fact that this was retrospective punishment for something the film censors should have spotted if they are really that politically-sensitive. Why did the mainland Chinese authorities, or the film distributors for that matter, not spotted the nation-betraying potential of this film during either the proposal or production or indeed the distribution of the movie? If they themselves couldn't find anything wrong with the movie when it was being made and indeed when it was finished, how could they blame, a posteri, Tang Wei for taking part in the movie in the first place? Or, indeed, how could the millions of mainland Chinese people joined in the official chorus to vilify an actress when they themselves have shelled out money from their own pocket out of their own free will to watch the movie either at the cinemas or from pirated DVDs? Should all the movie-goers in mainland China be reprimanded also for daring to view such allegedly country-betraying material?).

Anyway, back to comparing Lust Caution the movie with Lust Caution the novella. I read Eileen Chang's short story a few years ago, when I was trying to acquire a full set of her novels through So when I heard that Ang Lee's film was based on one of her short stories, I was very excited and took out the book and re-read the story again. I had the same feeling on this second reading of the story as I did when I first read it - I was very depressed by the storyline, by how the young and idealistic heroine was manipulated by those around her into betraying her body and ultimately, being betrayed by the only man whom she trusted in spite of herself. To me, the story was not so much about the love or sex between the heroine and the spy; no, that relationship was only secondary to the central story of how she came to be trapped in her position of being forced to carry on struggling for the "cause" even though she came to realise how she was manipulated into doing so by her so-called friends and compatriots.

I felt physically sick when I read the part where the realization dawned on her that she was being tricked into losing her virginity to a member of her student clique, who had long had designs on her and used the Resistance as simply a grandiose cover for pursuing his own selfish goals. That wasn't the worst betrayal though - it was the dirty looks that she got from her fellow student plotters, especially her girlfriends, who, after helping to trick her into betraying her body in the name of Resistance, looked down on her for being a skanky ho for precisely deigning to make that sacrifice.

That, to me, is the reason why Eileen Chang wrote that the character felt finally at ease with herself when she was with the spy, that being with him felt right, and having sex with him "felt like being in a hot bath". Because finally, the sex that she had with the spy helped cleanse the shame and guilt that she was suffering internally - finally there was a righteous purpose after all to the personal sacrifice that she had made earlier; that she wasn't just a stupid, naive girl who fell for the lies of the unscrupulous members of her gang, who preyed on her innocence and idealism; and that she wasn't a skanky slapper after all but a proper agent doing glorious, country-saving work...

That was the story version, or at least my reading of Eileen's character motivations in her short story. What Ang Lee did with the above storyline though was completely different - Ang gave the poor heroine a genuinely charismatic, good-looking, and well-intentioned leader of the gang in the form of Leehom Wang, in whom she had a secret crush and for whom she would do anything. This character was never in Eileen Chang's story, and its addition to Ang Lee's plot made the personal sacrifice by the heroine a bit more believable than simply the fact that she felt the thrill of successfully executing a role on stage. Secondly, Ang made her sacrifice her body not to a scheming and manipulative slimeball who used her for his own personal gratification, as in the original story, but to a clueless and awkward boy in the gang who only got the honour of deflowering her due to his so-called previous sexual experience. His adolescent awkwardness contrasted sharply with her business-like determination, which presage the beginning of her sexual confidence and power. This was directly contradictory to the plot in the original short story, where the heroine was an ingenue preyed on by her own friends, who could never raise her head high in front of them after the betrayal. Most importantly, Ang gave her a group of well-meaning co-conspirators who actually cared about her, who not only didn't look down on her once she has been sexually "used" by a fellow member of the gang, but who were actually in thrall of her (sexually-generated) power once the intrigue formally started with the spy. Far from feeling superior to the designated "hoar" in the group, the female co-conspirator in the movie felt inferior to the heroine's new-found glamour and beauty, and acted in deference to her, behaving almost like her maid not only because that was what her official role called for, but also because the power in their friendship has shifted, and it was the girl who wielded the sexual power who called the shots. These were all a far cry from the original story penned by Chang.

In fact, when the whole plot was discovered by one of the spy's associates, and that the heroine might have turned out to have sacrificed her body for nothing, Ang Lee made the gang - especially the team leader played by Leehom - avenge her honour through a bloody and long-drawn-out slaughter scene. Ostensibly, the group killed the associate - a distant relative of Leehom's character - because they knew the game was up and they were all in danger of being exposed; but their cringe-worthy amateurish stabbing attempts showed that they really hadn't got it in them to kill anyone, at least not for some abstract cause like nationalism. No, the look that passed between Leehom and Tang Wei's characters when Leehom finally twisted the guy's neck and finished the bloody deed, was one of "See, our struggle is not for nothing; more importantly, your sacrifice was not for nothing. Even though we couldn't catch the big fish, at least we managed to kill a small-time traitor. Even if he was my cousin." Nobody bothered at all with the heroine's feelings in Eileen's original story, much less try to avenge her honour by physically murdering someone.

In short, Ang Lee has rescued the poor heroine from being a stupid and naive footnote in the history of the Nationalist struggle against the Japanese, a person betrayed and pimped out by her own friends in Eileen Chang's original story; to someone who had a legitimate, though misguided, part to play in the struggle to save the country, supported by a cast of loyal (though similarly misguided) friends, whose idealisms matched her own and who stayed with her right up to the end of facing the firing squad. In the original story by Eileen Chang, it was not clear even if the heroine was indeed having the promised back-up that she needed at the jewellery store - none of her co-conspirators actually appeared, nobody tried to apprehend the spy at the end, nobody was seen doing reconnaisance on street-corners beforehand, not to mention actually staying with the heroine to face death together. In Ang Lee's film, it was the heroine who betrayed her friends and fellow conspirators, causing their executions as well as her own through a moment of weakness, a moment of weakness that was the subject of countless speculation in blogs and movie reviews afterwards as to whether or not it demonstrates that she had fallen in love with him because of the sex that they had. In Eileen Chang's story, the heroine was betrayed by her so-called friends from the very beginning, whose moment of weakness could thus be more easily explained in terms of her naive imagination that the spy was the only one who had in any way cared for her, as evidenced by his purchase of that quail-egg sized diamond ring, a ring that she knew he knew was a status symbol among the tai-tai's. That he actually agreed to bestow upon her a concrete symbol of status when she herself was treated like dirt by her fellow co-conspirators, provides another plausible alternative to love as an explanation of her decision to let him go at that crucial moment in Eileen Chang's story.

By redefining the female protagonist's fall from grace as the work not of her fellow co-conspirators, but of the bigger power struggles between different sides with vested interests, Ang Lee simplified the morals of the story as having to do with how individuals - regardless of their gender - might be easily manipulated and turned into mere pawns by groups with bigger agendas. Eileen Chang's original story, though brief, has actually more complex layers than presented on Ang Lee's silver screen: in addition to the theme of how individual ideals might be misplaced and be easily co-opted by groups with vested interests, she touched also on the subject of peer betrayal, especially among women. Furthermore, the original story presented sex not only as a tool of manipulation, but showed how it could have redemptive qualities even when it was with the most unlikely partner and in the most unlikely circumstance. Ang Lee's film touched on the latter too, however this was partially ruined by the speech made by Tang Wei towards the end, when she unapologetically outlined in graphic terms what her sacrifice really entailed to the elderly male Resistance masterminder. Though this added speech helped redefine her character as being fearless and having no illusions about the odious role she was assigned to play; it at the same time reduced the ambiguity of sex and limited its alternative interpretations that were present in Eileen Chang's original short story.

There is also a difference in Chang and Lee's treatment of the spy, the character played by Tony Leung. There isn't that much ink devoted to the spy character in the short story, as most of it was narrated from the perspective of the female central character, and anything related to the spy himself were only portrayed second-hand, as figments of the heroine's own idle imagination and second-guessing, except towards the very end of the story when he appeared as the narrator of the story after the heroine's imminent demise. In the movie, it seems Tony Leung's character had cared for the heroine to a certain degree, that he valued her as a sexual partner par excellence as well as a kindred spirit who underestood the loneliness of someone in his position, and the spy was portrayed as genuinely saddened, if not actually pained, by the fact that he had to order her execution in the end even though he managed to keep a straight face about it in front of his subordinate. In the short story, the Chinese spy character only felt a slight pang of regret, regret that was to do more with the fact that the affair could no longer continue than with the fact that he had to issue her execution order. In fact, what the spy expressed at the end of the original story was perhaps not regret as such, but a tremendous sense of relief and even a tinge of joy, feeling how lucky he was to have escaped the attempt on his life, and reflecting in bemused wonderment as to how he came to have the opportunity to dally with a young and beautiful girl in his twilight years. In contrast, it seems Ang Lee wanted to restore the dignity of the central female character by presenting her in his film as someone who had counted with the spy, whose existence had meant something more than sheer physical gratification to him, rather than as a mere powerless plaything used by her own compatriots as well as her sworn enemy in Eileen Chang's original story.

Indeed, one could argue that, far from desecrating the memory of the young female counter-Japanese operative who apparently inspired Eileen Chang's original story, Ang Lee could be said to have done everything he could in his film to reinstate the young woman as a person of substance who played a dignified role in history, even though the outcome was ultimately futile. Though he might have stripped her of her clothes and portrayed her in one explicit sex scene after another, he has actually restored to her a sexual power that was not at all evident in Eileen Chang's original story.

Such glaring differences in the treatment of the characters and their motivations, and the resultant morals of the story, by Chang and Lee were not mentioned in the huge number of the commentaries on the movie. Almost everyone - be they movie-goers who blogged about the film afterwards or professional film critics - seemed to have been dazzled by the sensationalist camera angles of naked flesh and simulated/real sex scenes and forgot about how the story was told. I was looking for some cogent analysis of the substantive comparisons between the short story and the film and came up with nothing (bar the one blogger who wrote about how a line from the original story, about how "the way to a woman's heart is through her vagina", helped explain the connection between love and sex in the film. While I neither agree nor disagree with her analysis per se - it was a throwaway comment made by the heroine herself who dismissed the idea as soon as it surfaced, for she never felt anything but shame from her sexual experience with the guy from her gang, yet that could simply be because she hadn't learnt to enjoy sex until she met the spy - I found it disappointing that that line was all the blogger was able to draw from in the original story).

When I told the friend that I went to see the movie with about the original story, she said that the film would have been too unbearable if Ang Lee had stuck to Eileen Chang's characterisations - it was sad enough to have one's idealisms and body be misused for nefarious purposes by bigger groups; it would have been unbearable if such sacrifices were not understood, and even used as an excuse to degrade oneself, by those within the immediate circles of one's friends and compatriots. But perhaps that was Eileen Chang's original intention - that absent any external understanding, one could still find redemption in the act of sacrifice itself, which in this case means sex. What Ang Lee did was to reinterpret this sexual redemption as being less about sacrifice, and the vainglory that came with it, but more about two people who somehow managed to find each other through sex even when they were meant to be scheming against one another.

[Sidenote: I went to see this film with a Korean friend, who also read about the reviews of this movie from Korean blogs prior to going to see this movie, so we both had high expectations, although she hadn't read the original story. We were supposed to be joined by a Taiwanese friend, but she didn't make it on the night. It turned out that my friend and I were almost the only Asians in the unusually full theatre - I said unusual, as Asian movies normally don't pack in audiences here; but even more mysterious was the fact that there were so few Chinese / Asians in the audience, as I was expecting a lot more of the recent Mainland Chinese immigrants to be there, especially given how limited the release was in Ireland - both in terms of number of cinemas playing the movie and the length of time it was on. Perhaps they've all already seen it through downloads from the Internet? After all, the movie was only released in late January 2008 here when it was already smashing box office records all over East Asia in the latter part of 2007].

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At Mon Apr 21, 05:17:00 a.m. IST, Blogger laichungleung said...

The DVD was out for quite some time, even though there wasn't much publicity for its release. I think it's totally ridiculous to ban Tang from the Chinese media. It's just outrageous what the censor can do.

Thank you for bringing some new angles to the analysis.

At Mon Apr 21, 07:24:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks for your kind comment - I wasn't going to write another boring post on the most talked-about film of last year, but I really couldn't find others who have compared the movie with the short story and so I feel obliged to finish my post even though it was so long ago since I saw the film.

It's indeed such a shame that Tang Wei is being banned when she's such an obviously talented young actress. It's the audience's loss really.

At Tue May 06, 04:12:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Susie Bright said...

thank you so much for this analysis and background on the original short story... I didn't know a darn thing before the movie started.

Now I am probably showing my romantic side asking this, but was anyone else shocked that the Spy didn't kill himself after he ordered his lover's execution? I was stunned that he just sat there on her bed, exchanged a few words with his wife, and then BAM, that was it. What was I supposed to think?

At Sun May 11, 08:12:00 p.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks Susie for dropping by my humble blog and leaving me such kind comments! I'm sorry for the delay in responding to you though as I hadn't got a chance to really blog in the last while.

Am glad you like the film and my amateurish analysis of it. To answer your question however, while I also thought that the ending was a bit abrupt, but I really don't see Tony Leung killing himself for Tang Wei, especially just after escaping the attempt on his life because of her. He is ultimately a selfish man (though in Ang Lee's film he was perhaps less self-regarding than the same character in Eileen Chang's story).

Actually the few words he exchanged with his wife was to show how under threat he felt that they must leave Shanghai at once, so even the few moments of lingering in the bedroom to reminisce about Tang Wei was already a "luxury" to him. I do hope though that there was another shot of showing him reminise about her further on the train or something, or some other symbolic gesture to do with the ring. But alas, us romantics among the audience have no such luck...

At Tue May 13, 10:13:00 a.m. IST, Blogger little Alex said...

I actually got here because of your commentary on Alice Poon's blog about Christina, but began reading your other posts.

My gods, that is indeed one of the best comparison of the book and the film. And it ultimately explains why I disliked the two Eileen Chang stories that I've read; her world is far too bleak for my taste, despite her more layered and nuanced characterizations. And I think Ang Lee really is just a romantic at heart; I mean, just look at Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and BBM...

Anyway, thanks. Now I know where to direct people who'd want an in-depth comparison of the film & the story. :)

At Tue May 20, 08:34:00 a.m. IST, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks Little Alex for your really kind comment :) And sorry for the delay in replying as I tend to lose track of comments on my earlier posts.

I too find Eileen's stories quite bleak and depressing, and I could only really take them in small doses at a time, but at the same time I admire her for delving into the darker side of human life. Also, her social observations are top-notch even though she's reportedly a social recluse.

It actually took me a moment to realise by "Christina" that you meant my comments on the Tibetan protests in HK on Alice's blog. While I deeply admire the bravery of those with dissenting opinions like Grace Wang and Christina Chan, I don't think it's appropriate that they are made equivalent to the cause that they are seeking to present (rather than represent).

At Tue Mar 17, 03:04:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger laichungleung said...

Spring is here, even my snowdrops in the backyard are sprouting to greet the warmer weather. I hope all is well with you and your thesis.

Did you get to read Little Reunion? I have to say, it's the bomb. And it just proves that great minds do think alike. I mean how the heck could he have thought about the sex scenes angle?

At Sat Nov 05, 11:17:00 a.m. GMT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi, got here cuz i'm googling to see if anyone was discussing about the movie's ending...

I cant help noticing, there was no actual shot where Mrs Mai died. And Mrs Yee mentioned that Mr Yee's secretary was there earlier to pick sth from Mrs Mai's room and Mr Yee's office. So I was wondering... is it possible that the secretary (who did afterall concealed her identity for so long despite knowing the truth) actually arranged for her to not be killed somehow???

(cuz i cant think of any other reasons why else would Mr Yee tell his wife to say that Mrs Mai left for HK)

At Sat Jun 23, 02:02:00 p.m. IST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, great blog entry, was trying to find an article comparing the movie to the book. Thanks

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