Why did she do it?
The question is itself an admission of the impossibility of ever really answering it.
And yet we ask.
Another, more specific, way of asking:
What act, exactly, does Wang Chia-chih perform at that fateful moment in the jeweler's shop when she decides whether or not to go through with the murder of her lover?
And here, two words–act and perform–indicate the troubling question Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) asks us: for at the crucial moment when we choose, when we decide, when we exercise our free will, are we not also performing?
One could say that "Lust, Caution" depicts a heroine who "becomes herself" only when she takes on the identity of another, for only behind the mask of the character Mai Tai-tai can Chia-chih truly desire, and thus truly live–playacting allows her to discover her one real love. But this is too reductive. For the performer always, by definition, performs for someone. And that audience, no matter how entranced, is always complicit: it knows deep down that the performance isn't real, but it also knows the cathartic truth the performer strives for is attainable only when that truth is, indeed, performed. Yee doesn't simply desire Mai Tai-tai while suspecting she is not who she says she is; it is precisely because he suspects her that he desires her. In this sense his desire is the same as hers: he wants to know her. And so lust and caution are, in Zhang's work, functions of each other, not because we desire what is dangerous, but because our love is, no matter how earnest, an act, and therefore always an object of suspicion.
If Chia-chih's act at the end of the story is indeed an expression of love, it paradoxically destroys the very theatrical contract that made the performance of that love possible–in killing off her fictional character, she effectively kills herself. Her act is thus a negation of the very idea that it could be acknowledged, understood, explained, or reciprocated by its audience.
I think one of the things that drew Ang Lee, and the rest of us with him, toward Zhang Ailing's work was a feeling that her writing itself is just this kind of "act"–a profound cry of protest against the warring structures of domination that so cataclysmically shaped midcentury China and made her life a long series of displacements. "Lust, Caution" is of course not a work of autobiography, but in it we see the shape of Zhang's life, and its terrible disorientations, ghosted behind almost every line.
Like her heroine, Wang Chia-chih, Zhang was a student in Hong Kong during the Pacific War's early years; the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941 cut short her English studies at the University of Hong Kong, precipitating her return to her aunt and mother's home in Shanghai–a home to which she had fled a few years earlier after a stay with her opium-addicted, abusive father. In Shanghai she married her first husband, a philanderer who served in the collaborationist government; when the Japanese were defeated, he fled and took up with another woman. Like Chia-chih, Zhang had earlier tried to get to London, but the war eclipsed those plans, too. In 1952, she moved to Hong Kong, and from there to the United States, where she died, in 1995, at the age of seventy-five, in Los Angeles. A precocious and accomplished literary genius, she wrote masterpieces in her early twenties. She continued to write, both in Chinese and English, into the 1970s, and though her works were banned for a long time in Mainland China, she has remained a revered and widely read author throughout the Chinese-speaking world.
Zhang did not just transmute her private sagas into art; she took the dominant cultural and political myths of her day and followed her characters to their bitterest ends as they fulfilled those myths. In this, she made use in particular of another "Shanghai Xiaoxie" (Shanghai Miss) of the 1920s and '30s, a woman who was perhaps the greatest star the Chinese cinema has ever produced: Ruan Lingyu. Ruan, even in her day, was something of a mythic figure, revered with an uncommon fervor–it is said, for example, that at her funeral in 1935 the procession was more than two miles long. Facing a public scandal caused by a ne'er-do-well former lover, she killed herself at the age of twenty-five. Her death was a national trauma, made all the more disturbing by the fact that in her last film, the wildly popular New Woman (1935, directed by Cai Chu-sheng), she portrayed a character who also met her death at her own hand–a character based on a real actress, Ai Xia, who had herself committed suicide. Wang Chia-chih, like Ruan Lingyu, is a woman caught up in a game of cinematic and literary mirrors, a game that has now ensnared Ang Lee as he reflects his own cinematic mirror onto Zhang Ailing's remarkable work.