A man and a woman, both extraordinarily beautiful, are sitting opposite each other in an empty restaurant in Shanghai, circa 1942. Although the tinkling piano on the soundtrack makes it feel as though we’re looking at two people on a date, we are horribly aware that we might actually be watching an interrogation, or an ambush. The man, a special agent for Wang Jingwei’s puppet government, has just explained how taxing it can be to be possess such great power—the high-ranking officials he associates with, he points out, do not make small talk, and because he spends his days conversing about war and economics, death and violence, he is usually speaking to a person who looks frightened. “But you’re not afraid, are you?” he asks his dinner companion, and she allows herself to break into a small, deflective smile. “Are you?” she shoots back. Do note: no one is actually answering the question.
This scene from Lust, Caution, Ang Lee’s fierce, explicit 2007 adaptation of a 1979 novella of the same name by the author and translator Eileen Chang, is thematically a perfect microcosm of the film itself. The woman, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei, in her screen debut), is a university student who has been recruited as a spy, and her objective is to honeytrap Mr. Yee, the special agent, so that he can be assassinated. Inevitably, and perhaps especially because Yee is played by the remarkably sensual Tony Leung Chiu-wai, what begins as a con—a pantomime of longing—becomes murkier in its intent. The first time they fuck, it is a borderline assault, but Lee films it as if it is meant to be at least a little titillating; when they have acrobatic consensual sex, he films it starkly, graphically, not rosily at all. As the film progresses, Chia Chi’s handlers cannot really tell if what she feels for Yee is love or hatred, and we cannot either—but then again, can she?
Lust, Caution (2007)
How much of seduction is an act of espionage in general? Many first dates, after all, amount to two near-strangers sitting opposite each other and pretending not to be afraid. In Lust, Caution, and in two more films screening at Metrograph that are adapted from books by Chang, women use careful performances of romance and desire for self-preservation, self-advancement, cash, and political strategy, and in each case real romance, real desire, develop and swiftly become a handicap.
Chang—who first gained prominence as a writer while living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the ’40s—saw first-hand the way that occupation and colonization bled into all aspects of domestic life. Her work often explored, in forensic, psychologically rich detail, the way women loved, survived, and weaponized their bodies during wartime. In addition to translating several prominent American novelists, including Ernest Hemingway, into Chinese, she also translated Han Bangqing’s 1892 Wu language novel The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai into Mandarin; in 1998, the director Hou Hsiao-hsien adapted her version of the book into Flowers of Shanghai, a lush, slow and faintly soporific drama in which time passes at a stretched-elastic pace that suggests an opium high. Situated in the brothels of Shanghai in the year 1884, its series of hermetic, golden-looking vignettes fade woozily in and out of practical negotiations about money, and casual conversations that are practical negotiations about money in disguise.
In the primary storyline, a man named Master Wang, played again by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, loves a courtesan named Crimson (Michiko Hada), whose refusal to become his wife leaves him so incensed that he smashes everything in the bordello; in another, a second courtesan by the name of Jade (Hsuan Fang) attempts to poison both her client and herself after he makes the empty promise that he’ll die with her if they cannot get married. The film’s visual warmth is so entirely at odds with the cool, repressed emotions of its characters that each enhances the other, the way alternating hot and cold sensations on the skin quicken the blood.
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Like Wong Chia Chi before she is recruited, Ge Weilong (Sandra Ma), the heroine of the 1920s-set Love After Love (2020), is so innocent that she’s almost irritating, making her a prime candidate to be trained in the art of Machiavellian sexual manipulation by her bachelorette Aunt (Faye Yu). The film is director Ann Hui’s third adaptation of a work by Chang, and the source material, originally titled Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, is a melodrama about marriage as a business deal. Weilong’s eventual downfall appears in the form of a rich idiot playboy (Eddie Peng), who woos her with all the greasy, transparent ‘finesse’ of a modern fuccboi and then, once he has deflowered her, informs her that she is too poor to be his wife. Just before he sleeps with her, he asks more or less the same thing Yee asks Chia Chi: “Are you afraid of me?” Weilong, guileless, does not bother to demur. “I’m not afraid of you,” she answers. “I’m afraid of myself. I’m afraid I’m losing my mind.”
What she means, or at least what Love After Love implies, is that love, emotional and uncontrollable, is destabilizing, perhaps mad, whereas pragmatism in the face of sexual and marital opportunity is the sane choice in a world where a woman’s primary asset is her body. In two of these three stories, we are privy to what happens when two lovers, or two ‘lovers,’ make a practical decision, and somehow even though Lust, Caution ends in the most ruinous way possible, Love After Love and Flowers of Shanghai feel the most tragic, with plodding stability winning out over fluttering excitement. Only Chia Chee risks everything, informing Yee of the plot against his life at the last minute, and although her choice to do so results in her execution, her very willingness to be sacrificed on the altar of this mysterious, severe man is a grimly romantic act of self-annihilation. “He not only gets inside me,” she breathes to her handler not so long before she dies, “he worms his way into my heart like a snake. Deeper. All the way in. I take him in like a slave.” If what she’s saying sounds like a complaint, it is also, I think, the specific moment in which it becomes clear to us as an audience that her feelings for her target might be real. What she’s describing is sex; it also sounds a lot like love. Lust, Caution shows us a desperately complicated version of heterosexual coupling—erotic, warlike, dangerous, stupid, radical and risky—and then asks us: But you aren’t afraid, are you?
Philippa Snow is a writer based in Norfolk, England. Her first book, Which As You Know Means Violence, is out now with Repeater.
Love After Love (2020)