Afterword to Lust, Caution
To me, no writer has ever used the Chinese language as cruelly as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), and no story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as "Lust, Caution." She revised the story for years and years–for decades–returning to it as a criminal might return to the scene of a crime, or as a victim might reenact a trauma, reaching for pleasure only by varying and reimagining the pain. Making our film, we didn't really "adapt" Zhang's work, we simply kept returning to her theater of cruelty and love until we had enough to make a movie of it.
Zhang is very specific in the traps her words set. For example, in Chinese we have the figure of the tiger who kills a person. Thereafter, the person's ghost willingly works for the tiger, helping to lure more prey into the jungle. The Chinese phrase for this is wei hu dzuo chung. It's a common phrase and was often used to refer to the Chinese who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers during the war. In the story Zhang has Yee allude to this phrase to describe the relationship between men and women. Alive, Chia-chih was his woman; dead, she is his ghost, his chung. But perhaps she already was one when they first met, and now, from beyond her grave, she is luring him closer to the tiger...
Interestingly, the word for tiger's ghost sounds exactly like the word for prostitute. So in the movie, in the Japanese tavern scene, Yee refers to himself with this word. It could refer to his relationship to the Japanese–he is both their whore and their chung. But it also means he knows he is already a dead man.
We, the readers of Zhang Ailing, are we her chung? Often the transition from one life into the next is made unexpectedly, as an experience of the imagination. Zhang describes the feeling Chia-chih had after performing on stage as a young woman, the rush she felt afterward, that she could barely calm down even after a late-night meal with her friends from the theater and a ride on the upper deck of a tram. When I read that, my mind raced back to my own first experience on the stage, back in 1973 at the Academy of Art in Taipei: the same rush of energy at the end of the play, the same late-night camaraderie, the same wandering. I realized how that experience was central to Zhang's work, and how it could be transformed into film. She understood playacting and mimicry as something by nature cruel and brutal: animals, like her characters, use camouflage to evade their enemies and lure their prey. But mimicry and performance are also ways we open ourselves as human beings to greater experience, indefinable connections to others, higher meanings, art, and the truth.