Introduction: On the Romance and Corniness of Spy Novels
It is hard to ignore the fact that spy movies have become one of the numerous cinematic staples that have passed the time test well enough to settle in the realm of the movie world and set the course for mass entertainment flicks for some more decades ahead.
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Given the fact that this niche has offered the world more female clichéd characters, as well as any movie staples related to women in a typically male environment. However, weirdly enough, Eileen Chang, or Zhang Ailing, as she is known in China, has managed to offer the audience something completely new.
It is quite peculiar that Eileen Chang managed to squeeze some elements of her own biography into Lust, Caution, which, paradoxically enough, seems a true work of fiction (). Taking a closer look at both the novel and the movie adaptation will help reveal a number of peculiar details, as well as evaluate Chang’s contribution into the world culture in general and Chinese culture in particular.
The plot and the underlying themes: Chang’s lightning in a bottle
Before going any further, one must mention a couple of facts from Chang’s biography that shed some light on the way the novel was written and on what it was inspired by. As it has been mentioned above, the novel, as well as the movie, has a lot in common with the famous series of Bond movies, which, doubtlessly, is a west culture oriented movie.
However, if considering Eileen’s bibliography a bit closer, one will see that the writer was consciously exploring the Western culture, which must have made its way into her novel: “The family moved back to Shanghai.
Two years later, Chang was renamed Eileen (her Chinese first name, Ailing, was actually a transliteration of Eileen) in preparation for her entry into St. Maria’s Girls School” (Chinese Culture – Eileen Chang’s Life in Brief para. 3).
Although the movie followed the plot of the book quite closely, it still failed to capture the originality of the novel, since it relied on the visual elements and on the thrill of a spy flick and on showing the corny storyline of the relationships between the leading characters rather than focused on the emotional aspect of Eileen Chang’s novel or try to break the “man does, woman is” cliché.
Needless to say, the plot with an espionage, a femme fatale and a romance had been worn to death by the time when Lust, Caution came out. As Judith Arnold defines the cliché that the Lust, Caution movie finally resorts to, “I call it the “Man does, Woman is” syndrome: the male character is defined by what he does, the female character by what she is.
This syndrome seems to afflict a large proportion of our popular entertainment” (Arnold 133). One might argue that in the novel, Wang Chia Chi does not seem to do much either.
Even in the infamous stabbing scene, which was cut further on to one knife stab, the woman watches the gang kill the man and yet does not let out either any protest, or any words of approval; she merely moans, watching the murder passively.
The cries of the university students could hardly bear any significance, yet the murderers actually articulated their hatred: “You work for a traitor. You should know what’s coming!” (Lust, Caution).
The Novel and the Movie, Back to Back: Looking for the Differences
Making a movie out of an already existing story has never been easy, mostly because of the changes that the original novel has to undergo to be turned into a full feature-length film, especially a story as short as Lust, Caution. The most important issue here is the change of an angle from which the story is viewed.
Movies are a more intense media than books are, they are marketed in a different way. Movie-making presupposes that an already existing story is considered from a different point of view, made in a different setting, performed by people with different personalities, and, which is the most important, is directed by a completely different person at the helm; therefore, things will change.
The storyline and the plot inconsistencies: minor nitpicking
One of the most obvious in-your-face changes to the novel was the fact that the original story, which took about thirty pages, was supposed to be turned into a feature-length film. The story had to be stretched; therefore, certain parts of the story had to be stretched, and some were even to be created for the sake of keeping the audience in their seats.
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However, the choices that Ang Lee made to create a feature film seem to be rather questionable. While the novel is brief and concise in giving the details about Wang Chia Chi’s life, the movie basically starts with telling about the way she became the member of the organization.
The audience has not been yet for fifteen minutes in the movie, when they are being dragged into a flashback, which seems a bit unnatural and sets the story on an unbearably dragging pace (Chen 166).
On the one hand, it was quite reasonable to give Wang Chia Chi, the leading character, a back-story. Explaining where she comes from, what her motivation is, and why she agrees to kill Mr. Yee, follows the traditional pattern of a feature film.
However, in contrast of the movie, the book takes the audience in the middle of the story, while Wang Chia Chi’s motivation is explained further on. Therefore, the charm of suspense and uncertainty that the novel gives the reader vanishes in the movie. The given peculiarity seems the major problem with the film; Lust, Caution seems to be dragging too much, while the novel is relatively short.
To the advantage of the movie: when the trick starts working
It must be admitted, though, that the slow pace that the movie goes at can also be considered a positive improvement compared to the novel. While in the latter, the characters are given little to no introduction time, in the movie, the foil for their development, as well as the factors that predetermined their personality growth, are provided in full. Lust, Caution, the movie explains what the novel leaves in the shadow.
Concerning the Visuals: Feel the Chinese Culture Wrapping around You
While it is true that the movie adaptation of Chang’s novel does seem somewhat long, it has a great advantage over the novel in terms of making an impression; in contrast to a book, a movie provides the visuals that, when matching the movie tone and being unusual enough, can create a stirring effect.
The elements of the Chinese culture can actually outweigh the inconsistencies that have been mentioned above and, therefore, shock the viewers into paying attention (Louie 270).
Exaggeration as the director’s key weapon
In fact, the visuals in the movie do catch the eye of the viewers immediately, yet not in the way they should. In the novel, there is the balance between the description of the elements of the Asian culture and the development of the characters and the storyline.
The author, thus, offers a very natural environment for the reader, explaining that the events take place in a different country without throwing all the foreign gimmicks at the audience.
For instance, the characters have the names that sound rather unusual for an American or a European audience; they play mahjong, which is also considered an exotic game in the countries other than the Asian ones; finally, several references to the typical Chinese food are made throughout the novel.
On the whole, these elements look rather natural. The movie, on the other hand, offers a much more exotic picture. However, such elements as the specific house interior, the signs with Chinese hieroglyphs on them and other hints that help the audience locate the venue serve their purpose well.
Te movie takes the elements of the Chinese culture, taking them to the nth degree, to create a unique atmosphere that the book intended to.
A Travel into the Psychics of the Characters
Even though the movie as based on the novel and, therefore, has the same characters with basically the same character arcs, there should be very little difference between the two sets of characters. However, it is important to keep in mind that the movie allows for more screen time for each character than the book offers. Hence, the ones in the movie could actually be more diverse than the ones in the book.
From complex ideas to the simplicity of the movie
As it has been mentioned, the notorious “man does, woman is” cliché has affected the movie greatly. One might argue, though, that in the novel, Wang Chia Chi does not do much either; she merely waits passively until she has the right moment to assassinate Mr. Yee.
In addition, Wang Chia Chi never murders Mr. Yee; when the big deciding point comes, she refuses to kill the man whom she has grown attracted to. However, in the novel, her non-action also bears significance; in the end, she does make a decision, practically claiming her life in return for the life of the man whom she learned to love: “He really loves me, she thought.
Inside, she felt a raw tremor of shock – then a vague sense of loss. It was too late. The Indian passed the receipt to him. He placed it inside his jacket” (Chang 30). As a matter of fact, she does not act, because she does not have to anymore – her mission is complete in the book.
Therefore, the fact that she refuses to do anything to save her own life, the fact that when she needs to get back home, she does not simply take the car – she is literally pulled inside it: “She was on the watch for a charcoal-fired vehicle drawing suddenly up beside her, and for a hand darting out to pull her inside” (Chang 32) is fully justified.
The final part of the novel is no longer about Wang Chia Chi – it is about Mr. Yee and him making the decision concerning his grim new knowledge. In the movie, however, even after the truth is revealed, Wang Chia Chi is still there in the background, which destroys her character arch. The movie drags much, which kills the entire plot and reduces the characters to stereotypes (Roberts 175).
Balancing on the edge: where movie succeeds
To its credit, the movie also works on the character development issue, though obviously trying hard to make the former not to chew the scenery. After all, the female lead in Lust, Caution passes the Bechtel test successfully.
While in the novel, the female characters hardly have any interactions aside from supplying the color comments in the conversation during the game, in the movie, they actually offer much more food for thoughts.
However, the movie does not create a surreal universe where gender issues do not exist; it also offers the audience the chance to immerse into the Asian culture and understand its attitude towards gender relationships.
For example, in the first one third of the movie, one of the side characters asks, “With all the men off to war, who will be left for us to marry?” (Lust, Caution), which brings the audience from the world of female spies into the sad realm of reality.
Behind the Curtains: Implementation of the Ideas in the Novel
Finally, it is necessary to take a closer look at the original ideas that Chang meant to express in her novel, and the ones that the titular movie has to offer. While, according to the previous analysis, the novel can be considered way ahead of the movie, the latter still offer ample opportunities for going even beyond the author’s intent and taking the discussion to a completely different level.
A Bond movie with a female lead
As it has been mentioned above, the movie lends part of its charm to its specific theme. While portraying women as dangerous femme fatales, spies and even hit men that could murder a person without batting an eye, the idea of an undercover agent on a secret mission seems more suitable for a James Bond type of actor, yet not a fragile woman.
Therefore, making the latter play the part of an assassin is a rather risky idea that creates the challenge in the movie.
A romantic drama
In addition to the thrilling story of a spy, Chang also develops the subplot with an affair between the lead character and her victim-to-be. Therefore, the tension becomes even stronger. In the book, however, the given storyline is played much more subtly than in the movie.
Conclusion: When Subtlety Is All That Matters
All in all, it seems that Chang has managed to hit the sweet spot between the melodramatic storyline and the portrayal of a strong, self-sufficient and merciless spy woman who suddenly has a change of heart and saves the charming enemy.
All the elements that Chang incorporates in her novel work for the advantage of the story; however, the movie adaptation of Lust, Caution suffers from the dragging story and the fact that its stake is the shock value, not the character development or the relationships between Mr. Yee and Wang Chin Chi.
Chang, Eileen. Lust, Caution: The Story. New York City, NY: Knopf Doubleplay Publishing Group, 2008. Print.
Chen, Ya-Chen. Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millennium: Narrative Analyses and Gender Politics. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2012. Print.
Chinese Culture – Eileen Chang’s Life in Brief 2009. Web.
Louie, Kam. Eileen Chang: Romantic Languages, Cultures and Genres. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012. Print.
Lust, Caution. Dir. Lee Ang. Perf. Toni Leung Chiu-Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen and Leehorn Wang. Focus Features, 2007. Film.
Roberts, Priscilla. Voices of the World War II: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012. Print.