I usually never advocate watching a film before reading the book it was based on, but like most things, I have exceptions.
Lust, Caution (Anchor Books, 2007) by Eileen Chang is one of those cases. (Another, at least in my opinion, is The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje).
I read Chang’s novella this week. (At only 68 pages including two postscripts, it took me a couple hours to read.)
Wang Jiazhi is student and amateur actress in Canton when the Japanese invade the southern part of China. Her university moves its campus to Hong Kong University, where Wang falls in with a group of radical Chinese nationalists. The group plots the assassination of Mr. Yee, a Chinese official who sympathizes with the Japanese. With Wang’s beauty and acting background, the radical group chooses her as the seductress of Mr. Yee.
The setting switches to Shanghai after Mr. Yee and his wife return there. Wang becomes distraught over the failed plot to do away with Mr. Yee, so when she meets up with the radical group again in Shanghai, they take up where they left off in Hong Kong.
Chang modeled Mr. Yee partly after her own first husband, a Chinese national who worked for the Japanese puppet government during WWII. Chang herself studied at Hong Kong University and returned to Shanghai during the war.
Lust, Caution differs in several ways from Chang’s earlier stories. For one, she wrote the story in the 1950s but didn’t publish it until 1979. During those three decades, she returned to it time and again, revising and reworking the story. This novella also marks the beginning of Chang’s political writings. (She became wildly famous in the early- to mid-1940s in Shanghai during WWII, but instead of focusing on revolution, nationalism, or the triumph of good over evil, she simply used war as a backdrop and focused her stories on personal relationships of imperfect characters.)