A misunderstood passion
By Liu Wei
Updated: 2007-09-27 07:22

 

Young actress Tang Wei plays Wang Jiazhi in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution.

Ang Lee's latest opus, Lust, Caution, which has just won the director a second Golden Lion, has been the talk of the town because of its 30-minute-long erotic scenes, including full-frontals of the two main characters. Yet the stories of the two women behind the scene, a young female spy who died of a failed assassination in 1930's Shanghai and the author of the original story whose own love story resonates in the film - are equally ravishing.

Earlier in September, an 80-year-old woman named Zheng Jingzhi hosted a press conference in Los Angeles to reveal the truth about her sister Zheng Pingru, who is widely acknowledged as the inspiration behind Lust, Caution. During the news conference, she did not hide her discontent for the film.

"Since you (Ang Lee) want to shoot a historic story, you have to learn a bit more about history," Zheng says.

Zheng says the film's erotic scene is an insult to her sister, who died after failing to help assassinate a top Japanese collaborator named Ding Mocun in 1939. She claims that her sister as well as her brother, a pilot who died in a battle with the Japanese, are martyrs. Zheng says the film's suggestion that she could love the traitor is impossible.

"I can say that all my family members are patriots," Zheng was quoted as saying.

According to a report in the Beijing-based Life Weekly magazine, after Zheng was arrested, the puppet government once told her father they could save her, as long as her father worked for them. But Zheng's father refused, and until her death, Zheng did not admit she was a covert spy, claiming she did it only out of personal hatred for the man.

Ang Lee so far has not responded to the criticism, but in Venice, he told the media that Eileen Chang, author of the novel, actually writes about her own encounter.

 

A portrait of Eileen Chang on a book cover of her collection.File photos

Lust, Caution revolves around Wong Chia Chi, a patriotic student who volunteers to bait Mr Yee, a high-up Chinese who runs the secret service on behalf of the occupying Japanese force, to help her fellow students conduct an assassination.

It was a 28-page short story by Chang, one of the most popular writers in Shanghai during the 1930s. Chang first wrote it in 1950 but did not publish it until 33 years later and after multiple revisions.

The story is an important piece among Chang's works, because the plot reminds many of Chang's own love story in Shanghai with Hu Lancheng, also a high-level Japanese collaborator working for the puppet government.

In the preface of her last short story collection in which Lust, Caution is included, Chang cited two lines of an ancient poem to express her attitude towards love: The feeling could only be recalled later, but when it happened, there was no reason (Ciqing Kedai Chengzhuiyi, zhishi dangshi yi wangran).

Chang and Hu's story caused a big stir among Shanghai's intellectuals. Many people could not understand why she chose a traitor, the most hated group aside from the occupying Japanese. Chang's response was two well-known lines later revealed in Hu's memoir: "Because he understands me, so I am merciful."

Zheng was the daughter of a high-level official of the Nationalist Party, then the ruling party of China. In 1944, she seduced, and then tried to assassinate Ding Mocun, a top Japanese collaborator but failed and died at age 23. Zheng was a famous lady in Shanghai then - a beautiful, vigorous and well-educated girl. She was also known for her courage and patriotism, as shown in a failed attempt to attract and kidnap the son of the Japanese prime minister.

According to Yu Bin, an expert on Eileen Chang and a professor at Nanjing University, Hu, also as a high-up official in the puppet government, must have told the espionage story to Chang; also, Chang's friend Su Qing, another popular female writer in Shanghai then, ran a magazine supported by a few important officials in the puppet government.

Some other scholars think that Chang wrote the thriller after she heard a story from her friend Song Qi, whose classmates used to talk about a similar plan. In any event, the story had a strong impact on Chang.

"The little story strikes me strongly. I revised it again and again without noticing 30 years had passed. Love is not about whether you deserve it or not," Chang wrote in the prelude of her last collection.

The foremost difference between the real event and Chang's story is whether the woman falls in love with her quarry. Zheng tried to kill Ding by leading him to a leather clothes store to buy a new overcoat for her. At the last moment, the cautious Ding escaped to his car and fled. Zheng was later secretly killed by the underground service Ding worked for. In Chang's story, Mr Yee also survived, but it was Wong who let him go, when she found herself in love with him and believed Yee had the same feelings for her.

On why Chang changed the ending of the story, scholars have varied opinions. But most believe that Chang is actually talking about her own affair with Hu, who was a hated traitor and a Casanova who had affairs with many women.

 

In her days as Hu's lover, Chang had to endure the misunderstanding of other writers about both her personal life and her writing. When most were working on stories about how to fight against the Japanese and save the motherland then, she kept writing lugubrious love stories about men and women in the chaotic Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Her love for Hu went on, too. When he was exiled from Shanghai, Chang financially aided him. Her connection with Hu was also an important reason why she left China for the United States in 1952. "I think Lust, Caution is Chang's best work, in which she poured a lot of personal feelings," said Ang Lee talking about why he chose the story. "From a woman's perspective to see a big historic event, nobody else has ever done that."

(China Daily 09/27/2007 page18)