色戒 is a erotic thriller of sorts released in 2007, directed by Taiwanese director Li An (Ang Lee) and co-produced by Taiwan and the United States. Screenwriters Wang Huiling and James Schamus adapted the script from Zhang Ailing’s (Eileen Chang) 20,000-word novella first written in 1950 and revised numerous times until its present form published in 1978. A little historical background first.
In 1940, national hero of Xinhai Revolution fame 汪兆铭 Wang Zhaoming alias Wang Jingwei 汪精卫, cooperated with Japan to establish the “National Government of the Republic of China” in Nanjing after the horrifying massacre of 1937. Wang saw no hope of victory for China and split from Chiang Kai Shek’s government based in Chongqing to become president in Nanjing. It was a puppet government and Wang would later be regarded as a traitor by both the KMT and CCP. The story of 色戒 begins here.
I don’t like the English translation for 色戒. Sure, there’s lust and 戒 does mean caution or abstinence, but it’s more like “The Spy Who Loved Me” – an assassination abandoned at the last minute because the assassin had developed feelings for the target.
At the 64th Venice Film Festival, director 李安 won the second Golden Lion of his film career after “Brokeback Mountain” with “色戒”. In the 44th Golden Horse Awards, this film won 7 awards including Best Feature Film and Best Director. However, the popularity of 色戒 got nowhere near that of “卧虎藏龙” in the West. Nevertheless, it was the best-selling Chinese film in Korea, the third highest box office in mainland China, the highest in Hong Kong and Taiwan and the second highest in Singapore.
Most critics are of the opinion that 色戒 lacks the elements of an art film. I beg to differ. In this post, I’ll be analysing the film as if it were a piece of literature. Your opinions are welcome.
The scene opens in Shanghai under Japanese occupation with four urbane high society ladies in a plush setting playing mahjong. They wear expensive jewellery, chat about their luxurious lifestyles, completely removed from the squalor on the streets. The owner of the house is one Mr Yi Mo Cheng 易默成 who is the head of the intelligence agency of the National Government of Wang Jing Wei. His wife is the hostess of the mahjong party. The husbands of two other women also serve in the puppet government. Among these middle aged women, one young and beautiful lady stands out. She is the mysterious Mrs Mai, first introduced to them by Mr Yi’s subordinate Mr Cao when they were in Hong Kong 3 years before this.
Male protagonist Mr Yi Mo Cheng 易默成, played by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai, enters the scene. Dressed in an elegant suit, he looks stoic and dignified, but exchanges curious yet knowing stares with the young Mrs Mai. She looks away but gives him an almost hostile stare when he was not looking.
After the mahjong game, Mrs Mai, played by Chinese actress Tang Wei 汤唯, enters a Western cafe and makes an encoded call to a bunch of young men who quickly load their guns. We’re actually near the end of the story here.
Flashback to the time when Mrs Mai and her gang are students who have just fled from the war on the mainland to move to Hong Kong’s Ling Nan University to continue their education.
Kuang Yu Min, played by Leehom Wang 王力宏, invites fellow student Lai Xiu Jin to join their drama club. They are also raising funds for the resistance through their shows. Fellow student Wang Jia Zhi comes onboard and instantly becomes the flower of the drama club.
This is excerpt from the original script quickly brings the plot forward.
黄磊：汪精卫号称是搞和平运动，可实际上就是给日本人干走狗 – 汉奸！卖国贼！
邝裕民：没错，汪现在正在招兵买马，听说香港就是这个姓易的负责。我遇到的老曹 – 这是个机会。
Off-stage, the members are not satisfied with just getting tears from the audience. They want to do something that will make a huge impact on the current situation. They only know how to “kill” on stage, but Kuang thinks that if a traitor stands before them, they will have problem killing him. The member join hands and become a part of the resistance, albeit a rather amateurish one. Meanwhile, Mr Yi has moved to Hong Kong to escape war on the mainland.
The plan is to sneak one of them into Mr Yi’s social circle, get close to him, then kill him. That person would of course be Wang Jia Zhi. They treat Cao to lavish meals and drinks. Leehom Wang’s Cantonese sucks. Tang Wei’s is much better than his.
With Cao’s help, they would introduce female member Wang Jia Zhi into the Yi household. Unaware of their sinister plan, Cao would introduce Wang Jia Zhi to Mrs Yi and she plays host and guide. This is the first step. Their final objective is to ambush and kill the traitor Yi Mo Cheng.
Playing the character of Mrs Mai, Wang Jia Zhi brings Mrs Yi shopping and plays mahjong with her. After checking out the Yi household, they discover that Yi has too many bodyguards and it would be impossible to ambush him. But their efforts are not in vain. Mrs Yi gets along very well with Wang Jia Zhi. She becomes a regular visitor and companion at the mahjong table. When one of the women was delayed due to a storm, Mr Yi took her place at the mahjong table. She wrote her phone number on a notepad. Mr Yi saw and memorised it.
He called, asking her to recommend a tailor. After seeing the tailor for his new suit, he went out for lunch with her and Mrs Yi happens to be unwell that day. Wang knows how the game should be played from this point onwards and tells Mr Yi that Mr Mai has gone to Singapore. At the dinner table, she keeps talking about the imaginary husband Mr Mai, saying that they don’t share the same interests.
“What do you like?”
“I don’t like to watch movies.”
“Of course, Mr Yi is a busy man. You need time and patience to watch a movie.”
“It’s not that. I don’t like dark places.”
He sent her home after dinner. She invited him in.
Wang Jia Zhi was supposed to have lured him into the house to be killed by the other members of the drama club. That doesn’t work because Mr Yi doesn’t trust her yet. He leaves. The group grows anxious. They have to take the game to the next level. Wang Jia Zhi would have to become Yi Mo Cheng’s mistress. The spy would have to sleep with the target. Except that Wang Jia Zhi is a virgin and so are all the other students except for Liang Run Sheng 梁闰生 who has been “entertaining” with Cao.
Here comes the biggest flaw in the movie. In this unfamiliar game of sex, Liang is supposed to be the mentor and since Miss Wang has already made up her mind to make this big sacrifice, the activities on her bed ought to be more instructional. Perhaps they should have an instruction manual like the Kama Sutra handy. To me, this is an excellent opportunity for the director to make virginal Wang Jia Zhi’s awesome performance in bed with Mr Yi more believable. I think he has failed here.
What skills does Wang pick up from Liang by surrendering her virginity to him? None from what we can all see. How will his clumsy and mechanical moves equip her with the skills required to seduce Mr Yi and please him in bed so much that he throws caution to the wind? After Liang’s “lessons”, she may be virgin no more, but she’s still a newbie. What is the purpose?
Next, their plot is discovered. Cao tries to blackmail them and the students gang up to have him killed. They finally draw first blood. One traitor killed, but the ultimate prize is Mr Yi. Then, Wang Jia Zhi receives a call from Mrs Yi. They are going back to Shanghai. It is a devastating blow. Their efforts have been in vain. Their school term starts soon. Their funds have also dried up. Despondently, the team pack up, ready to leave the house used as a front for the Mai residence. It’s then that Cao decides to pay them a visit and tries to extort money from them. They attack Cao. To the director’s credit, he makes it a difficult kill. After numerous inexpert stabs with their blunt knives, Cao is still alive. This is the reality of killing someone which the students finally begin to grasp. They finally have their first traitor.
Wang Jia Zhi runs out of the house, running away from it all. Fast forward three years, she returns to her home in Shanghai and moves in with her aunt. She attends a Japanese school. Without the mask she has to wear while playing Mrs Mai in Hong Kong, she is just an average citizen who has to join the queue for rationed food. She goes for a movie, only to end up watching Japanese propaganda. It should be noted that the narrative of being enslaved by the West and Japan as an Asian liberator is the main theme of Japanese propaganda. She is spotted by her former comrades.
Kuang Yu Min meets up with her. They have not given up on the plan to kill Mr Yi. The troupe is still together. They are now operating under the support and direction of the Chongqing government. A reminder that Wang Qing Wei was the puppet ruler supported by the Japanese. He had split from the “legitimate” Chinese government holding ground in Chongqing after the sacking of Nanjing in 1937. The Chongqing government was the only Chinese government recognised by the West.
Back to our story, Kuang urges Wang to get onboard with them. At an old book shop, she meets their new leader, who calls himself Mr Wu, played by Taiwanese actor Tuo Zong Hua.
Like a real pro, the Chongqing government’s agent Mr Wu gives Wang a poison capsule to be taken in the event that her cover is blown. The plot is a lot more professionally fabricated this time. They have created a detailed biography, street address, phone number, bank account for Mrs Mai to re-emerge on the scene. With a suitcase full of gifts from Hong Kong, she is instructed to pay a visit to the Yi family as Mrs Mai. The organisation promises to send her to England to meet up with her after she has accomplished her mission. Miss Wang hands Mr Wu a letter she has written for her father in England.
The letter-burning by Mr Wu shows that those are just empty promises. Hold this image in your mind. I’ll return to it in a moment.
Next, we move to the Yi residence in Shanghai. Mr Yi Mu Cheng comes home and hears a familiar voice. Mrs Mai has arrived in Shanghai. Mrs Yi urges her to stay in their home. Stoic as usual, Mr Yi contains his excitement.
It’s a powerful bait from Miss Wang. He missed a chance three years ago. Would he not seize the opportunity this time? Mr Yi moved fast. Just after Wang stepped out of the Yi’s residence in the rain, Yi’s driver came up to her and asked her to get in. She is driven to an apartment and given a room number. She plays along and enters the old, dusty room. Mr Yi suddenly appears and the first sex scene unfolds. She directs him to sit down and just as she is about to take her clothes off, he takes over, pushes her against the wall, searches her clothes for weapons, pushes her face down on the bed, whips her with his belt and ties her hands behind he back.
She turns around to look at him, but she is helpless as he ploughs into her. This scene is very short, finishing with Wang Jia Zhi lying in foetal position on her side on the bed. Yi dresses up and walks off. This episode reveals the low level of trust that Yi has then. He wants to make sure that she can’t kill him when he is most vulnerable and it’s pure lust on his side as he treats her as nothing more than a whore. His condescending attitude is in sharp contrast with his rather civil disposition back in the house.
Wang knows that her plan is working. She needs him to trust her more, so at a family gathering, she reveals that she is going back to Hong Kong. Mrs Yi would be away for a few days. Mr Yi enters Wang’s room and finds her packing her bags. He gets anxious, angry and corners her in the guest room of his own house.
“Do you believe that I hate you?” she says.
“I believe. I’ve not trusted anyone for the longest time”
This time, he embraces her gently.
“You must be very lonely.”
This would be the opening for the second sex scene. This time, they embrace. Mr Yi kisses her naked body all over and nevers lets his eyes off her. They try several challenging and convoluted positions, always facing each other and end off in a tight embrace. Mr Yi then leaves for Nanjing.
Wang cancels her plans to return to Hong Kong and continues to play mahjong with Mrs Yi and her pals. She loses sleep awaiting his return, until one night, she hears him in the study, burning some documents.
For the first time, he reveals work matters to her, talking about nabbing and personally interrogating well-trained agents from the Chongqing resistance. She breaks down, tells him that all she can do in that house is to wait for him, wondering if he has other women. Mr Yi tells her never to step into his house again. He would find her another place to stay.
One cold night, she waits for Mr Yi outside his office and complains about why he doesn’t let her wait inside. He grabs her forcefully and gives her the horrid details of what goes on during his interrogation of suspects from the resistance. The third sex scene opens.
She sits on top of him. Wang has an excellent opportunity to execute her mission as Yi’s gun is hanging by the bed and at one point, she has a pillow over his face. They both know where the gun is. He trusts her. She doesn’t kill him. Why? From the start, it is never her duty to kill him. Her job is to lure him into the killing zone. Besides, Wang is an innocent woman who has her first taste of carnal pleasures courtesy of the fatherly Mr Yi. I would understand that she is too “into it” to think about killing him. It could be love, it could be pure lust and it could be a combination of both. In the end, she cries.
“He really promised to give you that apartment? Excellent. This dirty old man has finally dropped his guard.”
Mr Wu has not been caught and he meets up with Wang Jia Zhi and Kuang Yu Min. Wu wants to delay the assassination and plans to have Wang extract secret information from Mr Yi. He reveals that “Mrs Mai” is their most successful honey trap so far. Two female spies sent earlier have not only failed but revealed their organisation’s plans. Kuang protests, saying that they should close the case quickly to avoid leading Wang into greater danger.
Wang assures that she would obey Mr Wu’s instructions but also reveals her tremendous mental anguish.
“What do you know about entrapment? What do you take him for? He knows about entrapment and how faking it can engender feelings better than you do. He pierces my heart like a snake. I’m like a slave to his lust. I can only resist yielding to lust by being loyal to the party. Every time, he needs to make me scream and bleed before he is satisfied and feel that he’s alive. I too can play this game. I can drain him with his lust until I’m broken and exhausted. Every time he is spent, I wonder if this is the time you guys should burst in and blow his brains all over me!”
This is another important revelation that explains Wang Jia Zhi’s seemingly irrational U-turn at the end of the story. She is just a spy and a bait. She knows deep down that that these people are only making use of her.
Wang Jia Zhi goes to a Japanese club to look for Mr Yi who is dining on a tatami. Interestingly, he reveals his distaste for his Japanese masters. There is no sex in this meeting, only kissing.
“I know why you asked me to come here. You want me to be your geisha.”
Wang sings him something that sounds better – a Chinese song. At the end of the night, he hands her an envelope to take to a jeweller. She hands the letter to Mr Wu. It contains Mr Yi’s name card and nothing else.
This part is deliberately dragged to create suspense. It turns out that Mr Yi has instructed the jeweller to let Wang pick a diamond she likes for her ring. She seems uninterested in the mediocre stones but settles for an exquisite 6-carat pink diamond.
The camera then brings us back to the “beginning”. Wang Jia Zhi had a secret rendezvous with Mr Yi after the mahjong game at his house (isn’t she not supposed to go to his house ever again?). Wang Jia Zhi makes that encoded phone call to Kuang Yu Min. The boys load their guns and get ready to assassinate Mr Yi. She wants to go to the jeweller’s to see the ring. The assassins are all in position.
“The masterpiece is ready.” says the jeweller.
The moment the ring is revealed, Wang Jia Zhi is mesmerised. She puts it on, tries to take it off. Mr Yi says “stay with me” and her eyes turn red. At the moment she’s been planning and waiting for, she tells Mr Yi, 快走, inexplicably sabotaging the mission. Why does she do that? All her efforts and sacrifices would have gone to waste and she would be endangering her own life to boot. Mr Yi escapes. The assassination is foiled.
Here lies another flaw movie. Where were the assassins when Mr Yi bolted out of the jeweller’s? How could they have even let him get out of the shop? As for Miss Wang’s sudden change of mind, it can be explained and to do that, I bring you back to the scene where the leader of the resistance Mr Wu is burning the letters he was supposed to have sent to Wang Jia Zhi’s father in England. Wang may not have seen that, but she does realise towards the end, when Mr Yi buys her a 6-carat diamond ring that he would not even buy for his wife, that the “good guys” aren’t that good after all.
Wang Jia Zhi has grown up in a middle class family. When her fellow students style her into the fictional Mrs Mai, she is abruptly thrust into high society. Eileen Chang’s story begins with:
“It was daytime, but glaring lights shone on the mahjong table. When the tiles were shuffled, diamonds sparkled off the women’s hands.”
This was the high society that Wang Jia Zhi was hoisted onto by her fellow students paying through their noses to keep the act going. Her role as Mrs Mai totally absorbed her. It’s an experience which none of the other students have. But what could these young and innocent students really be fighting for?
Could Mr Yi have been as idealistic nationalistic fighter just like them but later abandons his principles in order to lead a comfortable life after realising that he is fighting for an unworthy cause that would only put another bunch of similarly exploitative leaders in power?
Though it’s not explicitly mentioned in the movie, the sparkle of that diamond ring turns Wang Jia Zhi into a cynical woman, well aware that the government in Chongqing can’t care less if she lives or dies. It could be love and it could be lust. She may or may not have fallen in love with Mr Yi, but there’s still a romantic part of her which believes that Mr Yi has indeed fallen in love with her.
And that is why she does not swallow the poison pill even though she knows she is about to be arrested. She believes that Mr Yi will love her enough to spare her. If Mr Yi does spare her, they would live happily ever after and that’s how a normal romantic tale would end. But Eileen Chang’s novel was revised numerous times from when it was first written in 1940 to its final form in 1978. In between, she had endured criticism and accusations of drooling over the lavish lifestyle of the traitors. Such an ending would be politically incorrect to the patriots and even though she was in Hong Kong, all this was still unacceptable.
Wang Jia Zhi has to be punished. I feel that moments before she is to be executed, she should still be hoping for a pardon from Mr Yi. But no, she is as naive and innocent as her sweet demeanor would suggest. In spite of his teary eyes, Mr Yi would act rationally and professionally when dealing with spies like Miss Wang.
Finally, 色戒 is based on a true story. The real Wang Jia Zhi was a woman by the name of Zheng Ping Ru 郑苹如. Like the fictional Miss Wang, Miss Zheng also failed in a mission, but probably not because she had decided to switch sides.
Director 李安 even gave his character the same hairdo in a few scenes. The target was 丁默邨。Tony Leung’s character was named 易默成。Definitely no coincidence. Anyway, 色戒 could also been lust, ring in Chinese. The double meaning of 戒 makes 色戒 a brilliant title lost in translation.
Dewdrop Books – Fiction and non-fiction with a focus on the colourful and exotic Asian realm. Check out our titles.