Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang.

Lust, Caution is a collection of five stories by Eileen Chang set in wartime Shanghai. Although all five 'stories' are interesting, only the first tells a conventional story; the rest are 'slices of life'.

The eponymous first story tells of a young spy who finds herself falling in love with the person she is supposed to be leading into a honey trap. It has been made into a film of the same name by Ang Lee. The film shows long scenes which are both sexually explicit and impressively athletic but which are far more lightly described in the story (in one place by the six words: 'And so the show went on.'). Another addition to the film that does not appear in the book is one of affecting violence where the young troop of spies inexpertly carry out a murder. The murder is premeditated and yet there is an innocence about it because the act is so clumsily undertaken. Unlike the more usual slick portrayals of murder it is horrifying because it is easier to identify with the murderers.

It is interesting that the two most memorable features of the film do not really appear in the story; and yet both film and story work very well in their own ways. The basic plot is the same, and the pivotal moment conveyed with the same striking subtlety. The written story tells more about the motivations of the characters, and the film tells a little more about the spy's background, otherwise the film is a faithful rendition of the book.

I found the other stories equally interesting for their accounts of various lives in Shanghai under the Japanese puppet government. Shanghai has long been different from the rest of China. For a hundred years the British, Americans and French had concessions of land which seem to be like pockets of colonial territory. It must have been a cosmopolitan place, used to the foreign devils, and used to interacting with them. Walls are thin in this crowded city of alleyways and shops, and the clocks and arguments of neighbours are a source of irritation and gossip. The concerns of the Shanghaianese in the stories that follow seem mainly social ones concerning marriage, and the price of food and other comforts of life. Traditional values blend with the modern and Eastern with Western. There is a strong sense that they are in a no-man's land waiting for this tiresome thing called war to finish so their lives can continue as before.


Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Sounds fascinating, Clare. I also really enjoyed your review of Mao's Great Famine which is sitting on the shelf.....waiting for a strong moment to be read, I think.

Sun Mar 25, 01:23:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Maxine - yes, Mao's Great Famine is certainly worth a read - and a strong moment!

Sun Mar 25, 01:35:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great review, Clare. I find particularly striking what you've said about the inexpert killing in the movie (which I haven't seen).

Sun Mar 25, 02:31:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Debra. That bit was gruesome - but I appreciated it too... through my fingers.

Sun Mar 25, 03:36:00 pm  

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