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REVIEW: LUST, CAUTION: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film

This book review was published in The Star on 30 September 2007. The print version comes with a 25% discount voucher for the book which can be used at Kinokuniya KLCC.

Eileen Chang, Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Hardcover: 311 pages
ISBN: 978-0375425240

WHEN I read a while back that Taiwanese director Ang Lee was making a movie that had some of its scenes shot in Penang and Ipoh (and being an Ipoh guy myself), I made a mental note to find out exactly what movie he was making – then, like the forgetful dolt I am, I proceeded to forget all about it.

Much later, I chanced upon the movie trailer online, and realised this must be the movie that Lee had shot on our shores. The trailer looked interesting, promising an intriguing cinema experience and it played to my fancy with its period setting and sensuous scenes.

The movie, Lust, Caution, stars Tony Leung, Joan Chen and Wang Leehom and features the debut of mainland China actress Tang Wei. Based on a short story by famed author Eileen Chang (known to Chinese readers as Zhang Ailing), the movie was adapted for the screen by long-time Lee collaborators, Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus.

As the movie is based on a short story, I knew the publishers would take advantage of the movie release and repackage the short story as a film tie-in. But as film tie-ins go, this one’s quite the odd one.

The film tie-ins that I’m used to are usually big-sized paperbacks printed on glossy paper. You know, the ones where almost every page boasts full colour pictures and concept art, and that are almost always touted as “The Making Of” but never really give any substantial insight into the moviemaking process.

This movie-tie in, however, is different. It has been published in a nice hardcover format that will probably appeal more to bibliophiles rather than film fans. Perhaps the publishers were targeting the admirers of Chang’s literary works?

Well, if that’s the case, the discerning Chang fan should find this book quite worth the while, for not only does it boast a handsome exterior, the content provides a compelling reading experience.

The book includes not only the original Chang short story, but also a well-written preface by Lee himself, an introduction by Schamus, an essay by Julia Lovell (who translated the short story into English) and the entire film screenplay, as well as various production notes by the film crew.

Chang’s short story is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai at the time of the Japanese occupation during World War II and concerns a group of student actors in a theatre club who also happen to be nationalists. The group chooses its best actress and prettiest girl, Wang Chia-Chih, to pose as a rich businessman’s wife – in short, a tai tai – to gain the confidence, and eventually the lust, of Mr Yee, spymaster for the Japanese collaborationist government. The plan is for Wang to use her wiles on him and set him up to be assassinated.

The story is elegant and atmospheric, and convincingly builds tension at every turn. Of course, quoting a few brief paragraphs can never do Eileen Chang any justice; you really need to read the story as a whole to feel the tightness of the tension inherent in the situation.

The screenplay follows Chang’s story faithfully, and adds some elements that, in my opinion, improves the flow of the story and depth of the characters.

Initially, I thought I would not get much out of reading the screenplay. After all, it’s just a rehash of the short story I just read, right? Well, I found myself surprised that I was quickly engrossed once again in Chang’s 1940s Hong Kong and Shanghai. It will be interesting indeed to see how Lee translates the screenplay to the big screen.

But to me, the section with production notes is really the most appealing in this book. Various members of the crew write about their experience working on the set of Lust, Caution, making this part a sort of diary and allowing us a rare, in-depth look into the making of the film.

The crew write about the problems, and their satisfaction in overcoming those problems, of building a set that would bring back Shanghai of 1942, searching for the perfect actor to portray the beautiful and innocent Wang Chia-Chih, designing the rigging of lighting that would turn Tony Leung into the evil Mr Yee, editing a movie in a language you don’t speak or understand, etc.

There’s another book that’s also a Lust, Caution film tie-in but it only provides the short story in a paperback format. It’s cheaper than this book, which is a thick hardcover, but, personally, I think the hardcover gives better value for the price you pay. The production notes and the various other extras peppered within make for entertaining reading and you would miss all that in the paperback. And it has the bonus of looking good on your bookshelf as well.
For an opinion of the movie itself, check out our good friend Swifty, who's written a pretty good review.


  1. Thanks for the birthday wishes!

    I shall watch out for the film :)

  2. Thanks for linking, buddy.

    Seen the film yet? Tell me what you think when you have, hohoh.

  3. Shelley: No probs, Shelley!

    Swifty: Not yet lah. Tried to get tix during the weekends but everywhere was fully booked. Will be watching it this Tuesday. Hopefully.

  4. didn't know it was filmed partly in malaysia!! wow. i have to see it.

    very good review, ted, you're getting to be an old hand at this!!

  5. You'll be hard-pressed to recognise Penang or Ipoh in the movie since it's all disguised as Shanghai!

    Haha! Writing reviews is still as hard as it was when I started! This one has been the hardest so far.

  6. Dude, didn't know you were Ipoh mali oso! Which school lah wei??

  7. Not one of the city schools. SMK Gunung Rapat :)

  8. Ted, only now have I read your review of the hardback. Great job! Makes me wanna go out and get it.

    The movie is a scorcher, isn't it?

  9. Indeed it was...too bad I watched the censored version in cinemas :(

    If you do plan to buy it, make sure you get the hardback, it's more value than the paperback. That is if they still have it.


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