Cannibal, class, betrayal: Eileen Chang and Ang Lee

Darrell William DAVIS

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This passage is an autobiographical detail from Eileen Chang’s life. It indicates the comforts of her upbringing in Shanghai and later Hong Kong. It also defamiliarizes, dropping hints (cinema, curb, waiting, car) that amount to something other than the unexpected point, “to live in luxury.” Because the distracted child is thinking of something else (custody, gendarme, to forget a plate number), luxury does not register, except in adult recollection years later. This essay tries to weave together several things: a thematic reading of Chang’s story “Lust, Caution”; an account of its adaptation to film by Ang Lee; and a meta-textual analysis of its lessons in consumption. Namely, consumption is a kind of pretense and production of elaborate masquerades, but also masks the steps of accomplishment from player to role, performance to actuality. Biographical detail is part of this showing/masking process, and blurs the distinctions we assume between fiction and memoir. The model of consumption derived from “Lust, Caution” contrasts with prevailing accounts of consumption commonly found in cultural studies, signaling a continuum between consumption, impersonation, and collaboration. Eileen Chang’s “Lust, Caution” explores entrapment, passion, betrayal – and conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899). In re-telling a newspaper headline about a failed plot, the attempted assassination of a collaborator by a group of students, Chang worked the story into a searing account of impersonation. All the characters are engaged in varieties of roleplay, like the child imagining herself prisoner while awaiting her driver. As in film noir, the story consists of an alternation of psychology and slippery social terrain, often turning on details of presence, projection, and personal adornment. Consumption is key to this story in its display purposes, signaling forth an array of image and ascription

– of class, background, of easy availability in times of privation. But the movement is two-way, with the story also eliciting the idea of being consumed, and falling for a role, an assumed identity, or alterego. In cultural studies, consumption is more than the circulation and use of daily needs, but rather social practices semantically recast and rekindled. Consumption is identity formation, bound to human choices in self-expression, affiliation, and affirmation. With individual and collective identity expressed through goods and services, personality is shaped by the clothes, accessories, food, and lifestyle choices we make.1 These choices may be technological, the selection of a car or cell phone (Gerard Goggin, 2006), or mediated by popular culture such as television and film.2 In “Lust, Caution,” Wang Jiazhi sees herself as in a film: “Sitting by the balcony, she began to imagine that the bright windows and door visible behind her were a cinema screen across which an action movie was being shown” (Eileen Chang, 2007a, p. 39). The author Eileen Chang worked in cinematic terms, often using them as a literary motif. When faced with postwar ostracism and scorn for her political background, having married a collaborator with the Japanese, she turned to writing scripts (Nicole Huang, 2005, pp. ix-xxvii).3 Her screenplays and stories examine the emotional and symbolic dimensions of consumer display, affiliation, and identification. Nicole Huang writes, “It is in her detailed descriptions of everyday experience – devoted as they are to exploring the cultural meanings of the material world – that [Chang’s] readers observe not only a dynamic inner life but also a new social identity in formation” (Nicole Huang, 2005, p. xix). Consumer acts mediate interior and exterior; they say things about us and may be deliberate, calculated for effects like refusal or outrage (Dick Hebdige, 1988). Or sometimes there is unconscious consumption, purchases made heedless of fashion statements, claims to empowerment, or expectations bid forth by products. But “consumption” is more primal, a naked, atavistic thing, in both Chang’s story and Ang Lee’s Lust/Caution. Here consumption looms up, fraught, irresistible; it ends violent, punitive and even brutal. Instead of conspicuous consumption, the public sumptuary notices announced by the leisure class, there is tactical, contextual consumption. In “Lust, Caution,” it is competitive, predatory and crafted to deceive and shift attention astray. This is different again from Thorstein Veblen’s other concept of “invidious consumption,” spending meant to inspire envy, because the latter indicates a causal relation between consumption and earning power. In a spy story within a wartime setting, the characters adopt another kind of power, prompting mistaken assumptions in their antagonists. In “Lust, Caution,” they must pass for something they are not, and thus enter forbidden zones. Moreover, their passing disguise involves forms of consumption and consumer behavior. In this story, consumption patterns have a calculated, performative edge, object-correlative to a character forged for maximum effect. Impersonation, masks, and pretense are dominant, self-conscious, exaggerated. Wang Jiazhi, the poor student, is cast as the lonely, available Mrs Mai, smuggling black market

luxuries; Mr Yi figures as a rich philanderer keen on showing off his taste, power, and virility. But even minor characters, bystanders, or casual observers are observed with a razor-sharp eye. In “Lust, Caution,” impersonation is first performed by the dissembling students, but note too the high artifice of the bickering, selfish wives at their pastimes. Anything but relaxed, these are less mahjong sessions than opportunities for theatrical posturing, taunting feints, double-crossings, sarcasm, and sly insinuations. These seemingly offhand mahjong games are edgy, acerbic, catty; the players pounce on any lapse in composure or turn of phrase. There’s a graphic quality to all this twisted performativity. The story as a whole is about put-up jobs. Wang Jiazhi’s scarlet lipstick, gloves, clothes, scent, and body language must pass muster with her collaborator friends – consumer checkpoints – to join and be accepted in their circle. As Mrs Mai, Wang is good at her role, if not at mahjong itself. She can gossip, shop, and share restaurant tips; she can catch the eye of a wayward husband. If she succeeds, she seduces a traitor (accepting his mahjong discards) and leads him to carnal pleasure, and then assassination. If she fails, she brings death on herself and disaster to the cause. Ultimately she succeeds and fails. Despite its domestic setting, “Lust, Caution” plays with high stakes, as if the grand wartime conflicts were sublimated into the trifling stratagems of a Chinese board game. Translator Julia Lovell notes Chang’s “innate skepticism of the often overblown revolutionary rhetoric” of fellow writers (Julia Lovell, 2007a, p. xii). Instead, she follows the discreet objects of bourgeois accessory, afterthought, and telling detail. Consumption is a means to impersonation, but consumer impersonation is also a kind of surrender, a case of fitting too well a role that may overwhelm the player and carry her off. So, this essay turns things around, following consumption cues to the twisting nuances of consumer acts in different stages. Fashionable good living invites further, more urgent appetites, bidding obsessive lust, addiction, even cannibalism, while class identity reverts to narcissistic self-delusion. Pausing on the comma of “Lust, Caution,” we see the punctuation of “Cannibal, Class” as training device: Wang Jiazhi receives a lesson in consumption but is herself consumed, taken by “it,” a relation conjured up by her own performance. “Lust, Caution” concerns the passion of being devoured, swept away by something powerful. Undone by her proficiency in upper-class affectation, Wang allows it to slip into real emotional engagement. This slippage, initially, is what had drawn her to acting and impersonation in the early student phase. When she transports an audience (and herself ) into patriotic rapture, Wang realizes the power of emotional conveyance, through objects, sets, behavior, and makebelieve. “Once you put on the makeup, you are no longer yourself,” Kuang Yumin tells her as they wait for the curtain to rise. Something takes over, lurking beneath the artificial theatrical tricks, and cannot always be removed and tamed. Using some recent writing on adaptation, we can compare this movement with the transition from page to screen, itself a carnal act of translated transformation. We could also step outside Chang’s story, to compare Wang Jiazhi with a

real-life pretender of the time, Ri Koran 李香蘭 (Li Xianglan, or Yamaguchi Yoshiko 山口淑子). Though Japanese, Ri was a major actress and musical star in wartime China and traded on her flexible nationality, similar to Wang’s remarkable facility across and between different circles. In this milieu consumption means possession, incorporation, inhabitation. This is more urgent and intriguing than cultural studies’ “identity-consumption,” where personality is fashioned from styles taken off the rack, arranged in neat sizes or colors on the shelf. “Lust, Caution” has something different, more capricious, and lethal. Consumption may be fatal. It leads to wayward, impossible thoughts of attachment in this deadly game of entrapment.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFrom Eileen Chang to Ang Lee: Lust/Caution
EditorsHsiao-yen PENG, Whitney Crothers DILLEY
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781315849829
ISBN (Print)9781138063778, 9780415731201
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

NameAcademia Sinica on East Asia


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