Synopsis: Entrepreneur and libertine Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung) strikes a deal with her ex-lover, the devastatingly handsome playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun). Mo’s most recent tycoon lover has dropped her for a young virginal schoolgirl. If Xie takes the girl’s virginity, he'll make a laughing stock out of the tycoon – and Miss Mo will give herself to Xie. But Xie has his eyes on a different prize – the virtuous widow Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi).
Grand, gorgeous adaptation cuts deep.
Jin-ho paces the action out in a way that’s as seductive as his characters
There’s an otherworldly feel about this gorgeous-to-look-at Chinese-Singapore co-production. We’re used to films coating a world and characters in a glamorous sheen but director Hur Jin-ho and his team here have achieved something quite special; it’s rare that objects and human beings ever look this good, even in the movies. Everything in it, even the most mundane interior setting, seems bathed in a golden, sunset glow by cinematographer Kim Byung-seo. The light shimmers on the skin of the actors here in a way that not only speaks of perfection, sex and desire, but also something not quite healthy. They never seem to allow anything earthy, or harsh and gritty, to touch them. When it finally does, by movie’s end, the effect is complete devastation.
Set in Shanghai in 1931, on the eve of the Japanese invasion of China, and set amongst the city’s high society and powerbrokers, this Dangerous Liaisons is the umpteenth screen version of Choderlos de Laclos' famous novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses. First published in 1782, it was about idle aristocrats, sexual politics and romantic treachery. The main characters used their status and erotic allure to assert and avenge wounded egos. Sealed off from the wider world, the amoral yearnings of the book’s two schemers, ex-lovers Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, ultimately victimise the innocent and bring shame to their class. As the narrative of the novel ends in blood and scandal, the French revolution awaits.
When Stephen Frears did his hit movie in 1988, based on Christopher Hampton’s fine stage version, he had de Laclos’ tragedy played for laughs and pathos, and let his leads – John Malkovich and Glenn Close – delight in epigrammatic dialogue. But the tone and feel of this picture is a much trickier proposition. Less verbal and more feverish in mood than any other version I’ve seen, Jin-ho paces the action out in a way that’s as seductive as his characters.
At first, the film seems almost playful; a sort of mock romantic melodrama with a powerfully erotic undertow, and then, once the stakes are set and the victims prepared for their fall, it turns serious, dark and grim. The emotions deepen.
The plot follows the familiar outlines of the novel. Well-known seducer Fan (Jang Dong-gun), a businessman ‘playboy’, is still enamored of his ex-lover Mo (Cecilia Cheung), who is equally famous for her beauty and her success as Shanghai’s most prominent female entrepreneur. Mo wants revenge: she wants to humiliate the man who rejected her and who now plans to marry 16-year-old virgin Beibei (Candy Wang). She wants Fan to seduce the girl; he readily accepts the challenge. But adds a twist: he’ll seduce his cousin, the virtuous, socially progressive Fengyu (Zhang Ziyi) as well. Fan’s deal? He wants a night of passion with Mo. With just a hint that her word of honour may well be unreliable, Mo agrees to Fan’s terms.
Jin-ho and screenwriter Yan Geling seem to take a delight in confounding expectations, especially when it comes to the movie’s two villains. Jang Dong-gun’s Fan here seems more a dedicated sensualist rather than a mean-spirited rogue; even his manipulation of Beibei’s tutor, a young artist played by Shawn Dou, and who is madly in love with the girl, is marked with a tinge of regret. That’s kind of sweet. And there’s a lot of irony in watching him struggling to maintain his dignity in the face of his increasingly puerile schemes used in order to get close to Fengyu. But it’s Cheung’s Mo that is the most intriguing variation on a de Laclos’ character. Volatile and passionate, and strong (as opposed to plain old bitchy), she’s set up here as an unreconstructed proto-feminist of sorts; an independent woman unwilling to do any man’s bidding.
In transposing the action to ‘30s Shanghai, Jin-ho and co. find a way to allude to the novel (and make use of Shanghai’s colonial past). They manufacture a minor and amusing ‘end of an era’ subtext out of it too. But that’s more titillating to the senses than it is cerebral. The oversized sets – all stunningly artificial – of opera theatre, and ballrooms, lounge rooms and boudoirs have the grand palatial feel of an 18th century chamber piece. Still, what’s good about the film is Jin-ho’s commitment to old-fashioned melodrama and over-sized emotions; where desire is all encompassing and passions seem boundless and always painful. At its best, this Dangerous Liaisons is like a punch to the heart.
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