Ang Lee's Lust, Caution—the opening night feature for the 30th Mill Valley Film Festival—is an unsettling piece of film. At first, I felt tripped up by the ample length of its Asian brocade; but, in the days after seeing the film, it kept coming back to me. I kept thinking about it, feeling about it, questioning. In contrast to films that I forget nearly as soon as I leave the theater, Lust, Caution drew me back to Eileen Chang's provocative short story and I found intimations of myself and sifted relevancies from the moral dilemmas of its protagonist Wong Chia-chih, intricately enfleshed by Tang Wei. This marks a great film for me, when its internal conflicts are presented in such austere lines that it's almost like catching one's silhouette in a mirror; when the questions a film raises are, in essence, the questions you ask yourself.
I felt tremendously privileged to deliver my questions directly to director Ang Lee and his lead actress Tang Wei. They are explicit in their responses and, therefore, this conversation is not for the spoiler-wary.
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Michael Guillén: May I start with the obvious question? I think James Schamus has already responded to this, but, why did she do it? Why did she make this decision?
Ang Lee: That is the question. [Chuckles.]
Guillén: Is it one that can be answered?
Lee: No. I think it is something deep inside in the murkiest, most sensitive place at heart, that is very hard to detect. You see how she struggled. How can she let China down? I don't know. When I read [Eileen Chang's] short story, I asked myself: Is it the diamond? Is she bourgeoise? Is it because she had a good time in the sex? Does she think she loves him? Does she think he loves her? All those things. Obviously, she made a big mistake; but, a very sympathetic mistake, I think. It is so challenging, so frightful, to recognize that—being Chinese—to put female feelings and sexuality and that point of view to the glorious war, the holy war against the Japanese, in a patriarchal societal structure, that's unbelievable. It's courageous from the writer. I can't believe she wrote that. I just couldn't believe it. For a long time I thought there was no way anybody could make this into a movie. [Chuckles.] They should be shot!
But then, it just kept calling. Yes, that's a profound question to me; but, it really doesn't have an answer. She just did it. I think that's the movie and we're very moved. Personally, I think she did the wrong thing. That's why she's shot, along with her friends. It feels very painful.
Guillén: What is your impression of the ending, Tang Wei, and why she did it?
Tang Wei: I think to her, it's very good. She understands everything. She controls herself. She controls her life. It's good.
Lee: Women say no.
Lee: When they're not collaborating.
Guillén: [To Ang Lee] In the introduction to the published script, Schamus characterized that you have become "ensnared in a game of cinematic and literary mirrors." Whether or not that's true, it made me think that you've chosen two short stories in a row out of which you've conjured epic narratives. What is it that you see in the short story that you can unpack and transform into these epics?
Lee: Elements. We spent months and months and months writing the script. But what is the element? Is it rich enough to take off? To go on the journey? That's what I'm seeing in those materials.
Guillén: In this particular short story by Chang, what were the specific elements that you felt you could amplify through film?
Lee: Performance. Things about acting. Performance not only in a stage play and her parts but in general. A big part of life is about performance. Think about sex, how it's about performance. To me that's very important and that's what I do too. So, the illusion and disillusion is something I know I can dig in a lot and then—even though it's short—it has enough indications of the story poem. It has the theater group. It has the Chinese resistance and the Japanese collaboration and the government. After she loses her virginity, how do they respond? There's nothing written there, just a little bit, but you can imagine that, you can elaborate on that. It's full of potentials. The party in Shanghai. How do they go about their relationship? It's minimally written [in the short story], but you can feel a wealth of possibilities. It's storytelling. It's not just like, "They say…."; it's storytelling. It indicates a lot of possibility.
For Brokeback, it was a story of 20 years. Each one line could make you feel like you have to fill in five years each time you see them, so on and so forth. I think potential in our judgment or intuition, just react to the material, sometimes you can read a long book and think, "Okay, that's the story" and describe it in three sentences. Sometimes it could be poetry that can expand your imagination. So, I think I'm intrigued by the possibility of the short story. It's very lack of depiction—what's her character? Any of the characters?—and things underdeveloped. [Chang] avoided a lot of the details I really need to know. It was written very smartly. Actually, when you go into it, it is not easy.
Guillén: Were you tempted to include the omniscient narrator, which is so noticeable in the short story especially with regard to how Mr. Yee is feeling towards the end? Were you tempted to include that?
Lee: I think I did. It's a very strange structure, I must say, from the short story. We take the girl's perspective and at the end, after she's killed, we switch narrative to Mr. Yee. I don't know if that's legal. [Laughs.] It's totally uncultured; but, it's totally effective. Not only by middle-aged men who think, "Ooooooh." It seems like the ghost of Wong Chia-chih has come to the heart of the man. It has that feeling to me. It's written in a very ghostly way. It's curious and haunting. I think I did inherit [the omniscient narration] but in a cinematic way, with Mr. Yee carrying the death scene of these six students to him opening up the curtain, carrying the weight of killing her. And the reflection of the shadow on the empty blanket. I think he does carry the ghost of her.
Guillén: You don't depict their deaths. And you don't depict any of his atrocities.
Lee: That would be too real. That would be too objective instead of subjective. It has to be switched into more internal feelings that the man has to carry. You almost feel that living is painful and dying is a relief.
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Random House first sent me a photocopy of Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang)'s short story "Lust, Caution" earlier this year, and then followed through with the Pantheon hard cover publication of Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film, which—along with Chang's short story and the screenplay by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus—includes a preface by Ang Lee, an introduction by Schamus, an essay by translator Julia Lowell, and production notes by Co-Producer David Lee, First Assistant Director Roseanna Ng, Line Producer Doris Tse, Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto, Script Supervisor Sherrie Liu, Production Sound Mixer Drew Kunin, and Editor Tim Squyres. The volume provides a fascinating and well-rounded exploration of this project from root to fruit.
In his preface, Ang Lee writes: "Making our film, we didn't really 'adapt' Zhang's work, we simply kept returning to her theater of cruelty and love until we had enough to make a movie of it." (2007:vii)
Though he touched upon it in the interview above, Ang Lee provides some fascinating, insightful amplification to the character of Mr. Yee, played to ruthless perfection by Tony Leung: "Zhang is very specific in the traps her words set. For example, in Chinese we have the figure of the tiger who kills a person. Thereafter, the person's ghost willingly works for the tiger, helping to lure more prey into the jungle. The Chinese phrase for this is wei hu dzuo chung. It's a common phrase and was often used to refer to the Chinese who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers during the war. In the story Zhang has Yee allude to this phrase to describe the relationship between men and women. Alive, Chia-chih was his woman; dead, she is his ghost, his chung. But perhaps she already was one when they first met, and now, from beyond her grave, she is luring him closer to the tiger…." (2007:vii-viii)
"Interestingly," Ang Lee adds, "the word for tiger's ghost sounds exactly like the word for prostitute. So, in the movie, in the Japanese tavern scene, Yee refers to himself with this word. It could refer to his relationship to the Japanese—he is both their whore and their chung. But it also means he knows he is already a dead man." (2007:viii)
In the interview above, where Ang claimed that "performance" was one of the elements that convinced him Eileen Chang's short story could be unpacked and transformed into a film, he emphasized the importance of "performance" in his own life. In his preface, he elaborates: "Zhang describes the feeling Chia-chih had after performing on stage as a young woman, the rush she felt afterward, that she could barely calm down even after a late-night meal with her friends from the theater and a ride on the upper deck of a tram. When I read that, my mind raced back to my own first experience on the stage, back in 1973 at the Academy of Art in Taipei: the same rush of energy at the end of the play, the same late-night camaraderie, the same wandering. I realized how that experience was central to Zhang's work, and how it could be transformed into film. She understood playacting and mimicry as something by nature cruel and brutal: animals, like her characters, use camoflauge to evade their enemies and lure their prey. But mimicry and performance are also ways we open ourselves as human beings to greater experience, indefinable connections to others, higher meanings, art, and the truth." (2007:viii-ix)
James Schamus pursues the multivalency of performance in his introduction, distinguishing between "acting" and "performing" and suggestively implying that when we exercise free will through conscious decision and choice, we "act" on free will. Free will becomes, in essence, just another performance.
Schamus accepts the premise that masks reveal as much as they conceal when he writes: "One could say that Lust, Caution depicts a heroine who 'becomes herself' only when she takes on the identity of another, for only behind the mask of the character Mai Tai-tai can Chia-chih truly desire, and thus truly live—playacting allows her to discover her one real love. But this is too reductive. For the performer always, by definition, performs for someone. And that audience, no matter how entranced, is always complicit; it knows deep down that the performance isn't real, but it also knows the cathartic truth the performer strives for is attainable only when that truth is, indeed, performed. …[L]ust and caution are, in Zhang'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. If Chia-chih's act at the end of the story is indeed an expression of love, it paradoxically destroys the very theatrical contract that made the performance of that love possible—in killing off her fictional character, she effectively kills herself." (2007: xi-xii)
Schamus's description of this "theatrical contract" adds significant heft to the two words Chia-chih utters—"Go, now!"—upon which the moral complexity of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution pivots. It reminds me how heightened sexual dynamics and their power plays are configured as "scenes." And it sheds enlightened relief upon Chia-chih's anguished monologue in her encounter with Old Wu; a monologue that chilled me to the bone as it unfolded on the screen. Old Wu praises Chia-chih and tells her to keep Mr. Yee in her trap. She responds: "You think I have him in a trap? Between my legs, maybe? You think he can't smell the spy in me when he opens up my legs? Who do you think he is?" Old Wu listens but becomes increasingly nervous. Chia-chih continues: "He knows better than you how to act the part. He not only gets inside me, but he worms his way into my heart. I take him in like a slave. I play my part loyally, so I too can get inside him. And every time he hurts me until I bleed and scream before he comes, before he feels alive. In the dark only he knows it's all true."
This is as sophisticated as anything I have ever read, heard or seen with regard to the power dynamics of impassioned sex, where "consensuality" is only a safe word. Perhaps it is as Roman Polanski once observed: "Sex is not a pastime. It's a force, it's a drive. It changes your way of thinking."
Cross-published on Twitch.