Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Backstory of Collaboration and Betrayal in Eileen Chang’s “Little Reunion"

I’ve got an article up at Asia Times Online entitled “Eileen Chang’s fractured legacy” under the pen name “Peter Lee”.

It’s about the posthumous publication in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the PRC of Chang’s autobiographical novel “Little Reunion”, and the attendant media circus.

Chang’s best work, apolitical and acutely observational, was done in the 1940s in Japan-occupied Shanghai. Uncomfortable with the leftist line in literature, she wisely left the mainland in 1952 for Hong Kong.

Even before she had left the mainland, she had been roughed up by leftists in the press for having unheroically published under the Japanese occupation. Excoriating Chang’s screenplay for a popular piece of fluff entitled Long Live My Wife, an irate patriot wrote of “the stench of High Comedy coming off a walking corpse of the puppet government.”

Chang toiled at the U.S. Information Agency in Hong Kong, and then—perhaps because her work at USIA and the production of a written-to-order anti-Communist novel entitled Love in Redland—she was able to emigrate to the United States.

C.T. Hsia, the most influential scholar of modern Chinese fiction, enthusiastically praised Chang’s work and her popularity in Taiwan among readers, writers, and students of literature exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chang continued to write in the U.S., producing Chinese and English-language novels and stories, screenplays, and translations, but was unable to regain the acclaim—and sense of unalloyed exhilaration—that marked her emergence as perhaps China’s most gifted writer in the 1940s.

When she died in Los Angeles in 1995, alone and disappointed, Dominic Cheung of USC eulogized her in the New York Times as the writer who would have been the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, if not for the political division between the Nationalists and the Communists.

The PRC relaxed its restrictions on Chang’s work and her fame grew on the mainland. The army of “Eileen Chang fans” vastly increased in the hubbub surrounding the 2007 release of the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution, based on a short story that Chang wrote in the 1970s.

Both Lust, Caution and the recently-published “Little Reunion” have at their center a romance between a relatively naïve young woman and a Chinese man collaborating with the Japanese in the 1940s. The two works are autobiographical—Little Reunion is explicitly a roman a clef—taking their source material Chang’s disastrous marriage to Hu Lancheng, who was an up-and-comer in Wang Ching-wei’s puppet government.

Hu Lancheng was, in addition to being a hanjian, or traitor, quite a jerk. But no ordinary jerk. Brilliant, charismatic, and endowed with the skin of a rhinoceros when it came to shrugging off the savage attacks his amoral/immoral behavior attracted, Hu cast a long shadow over Eileen Chang and her work, and over the development of the literary scene in Taiwan.

Hu is a key factor both in the story and the drama that delayed its publication for 33 years. And that’s what I write about in Asia Times Online.

Ang Lee’s Eileen Chang obsession is a whole ‘nother story.

Lee insisted on absolute fidelity in the film’s depiction of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. The Shanghai Film Studio obliged the world-famous cineaste by building a full-scale replica of Nanking West Road in 1942, down to the correct presentation of seasonal fruit in the costermonger’s stall, at its own expense.

Ang Lee also instructed the female lead, Tang Wei, to set aside her shaving razor for six months prior to filming so the notorious sex scenes would have the requisite period texture.

Not many people saw Love, Caution in the United States when it came out because Ang Lee delivered an NC-17 cut that American theaters chains refused to show.

It seems that Lee was oblivious to the film’s U.S. commercial prospects and regarded the U.S. NC-17 version primarily as the sole genuine record of his artistic vision, since he was prepared to make whatever cuts were necessary to get his film into Asian theaters.

The famous sex scenes were shot on a closed set in Hong Kong. How closed?

Only Lee, the cameraman, the camera assistant, the sound assistant, and the actors Tang Wei and Tony Leung were inside the room. Outside were the supervisor, the script holder, the sound recorder, and the first assistant director; they listened to the action on headphones. The rest of the soundstage was empty.

Ang Lee kept the cameras rolling for a mind-boggling 14 hours per day for 11 days—154 hours.

First AD Roseanna Ng wrote:

One could imagine the pressure on the director and the actors. Even Tony Leung, the seasoned actor who had been through it all, was close to collapse when he emerged from the small room eleven days later. (Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film, Pantheon Books, New York, 2007, pg. 257)

Whether Leung was overwhelmed by the naked emotional truths that he confronted during the marathon sessions, or simply profoundly creeped out by having to spend almost two weeks naked in a tiny room performing endless, minutely varied iterations of erotic choreography under the direction of an obsessive and introverted perfectionist is unknown.

Everybody connected with the scenes is sworn to secrecy, which of course gave birth to the scurrilous rumor that Leung and Tang had actually engaged in intercourse on the set.

Eileen Chang’s posthumous fortunes are in the capable hands of Roland Soong, the proprietor of the Asian affairs blog EastSouthWestNorth and the son and heir of Chang’s close friends and literary executors Stephen and Mae Soong. Eileen Chang fans in Asia can follow news and backstory on Little Reunion and plans for further publications on Mr. Soong’s Chinese-language blog.

Perhaps the best way for Western readers to discover Eileen Chang is through a collection of her most famous 1940s stories published by New York Review Books, entitled Love in a Fallen City.


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