When Les Liaisons Dangereuses, an exploration of seduction and revenge by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos, was first published in 1782, the novel was deemed scandalous. Its story of two royals, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals (and ex-lovers) who use sex as a weapon, may have been a satire on the excesses of the French royals before the guillotine, yet it has hit a chord with audiences around the world ever since. Sex, of course, sells.
When the novel first came out in the 18th century it was actually used almost like a dating manual.
The versions of the famous book have been varied. In 1981, German playwright Heiner Müller staged his avant-garde adaptation, Quartet, perhaps the most famous and provocative of his plays, while Christopher Hampton's London West End production, Dangerous Liaisons starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, was a huge hit. Stephen Frears' 1988 movie featuring John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer was based on Hampton's play (Rickman was mighty annoyed he didn't get the movie role), and the following year Miloš Forman directed another version called Valmont starring Colin Firth, Annette Bening, and Meg Tilly. (Interestingly, both movies whipped up romantic storms between their male leads and young ingénues who played the pious Madame de Tourvel—Malkovich left his wife Glenne Headly for Pfeiffer and while a pre-Darcy Firth moved to the forests of Canada to be with Tilly, with whom he had a son.)
There has also been a famous youth-oriented contemporary adaptation, Robert Kumble's 1999 film, Cruel Intentions, starring Ryan Philippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Reese Witherspoon. And while there had naturally also been French versions—Roger Vadim's 1950s version starring Jeanne Moreau and Josée Dayan's 2003 television miniseries with Catherine Deneuve, Rupert Everett, Leelee Sobieski and Nastassja Kinski, which relocated the story to the 1960s—surprisingly there had also been two versions from South Korea: 1970's Dangerous Liaison, directed by Young Nam Ko; and 2003's Untold Scandal, by Lee Je Yong and starring Lee Mik Suk, which transposed the setting to 18th century Korea.
Yet there has never been a Chinese version until now and it's probably significant that the film has been directed by a South Korean, Hur Jin-ho, who is known as a director of melodramas. Indeed he has drawn on his background with this melodramatic Gone with the Wind-style Dangerous Liaisons and Chinese audiences flocked to see the film last week as it opened at the top of the local office.
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, I interviewed the director and Korean actor Jang Dong-gun as well as China's Ziyi Zhang, who hoped there might be a wide audience for their unique telling of the story which was adapted by the bi-lingual Yan Geling. (She had previously worked on Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War.)
“When making film we tried to stick with the original novel, but when replacing the society of eighteenth century France with the Shanghai upper classes of the 1930s, different things came up,” Hur explains. “I was interested in the people and their psychological motivations. When the novel first came out in the 18th century it was actually used almost like a dating manual. People could describe the emotions of men and women in great detail. I think that the psychological details of the dating and the emotions are why the book keeps on being made into films over and over again.”
Ultimately, Hur's romantic epic unfolds against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China. At a charity ball for refugees from the Japanese-occupied Northeast, entrepreneur and libertine Mo Jieyu (the scene-stealing Cecilia Cheung) make a deal with her ex-lover and playboy, Xie Yifan (Jang). 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 the virtuous widow Du Fenyu (Zhang). The game soon becomes increasingly dangerous for everyone involved, particularly when Xie, despite himself, falls in love with Du.
For Hur, it was a no-brainer to cast Korean matinee idol Jang as the ladykiller of the piece, even if he didn't speak Chinese.
“My biggest effort was learning Mandarin,” admits the dashing, immaculately dressed actor, who is known more for softer, more romantic roles back home and was keen to play the bad guy here. “Before we started the film, the character was even more macho, tougher and stronger, but after I discussed it with the director, we toned it down a bit. He became more humorous and developed a fun side, but, of course, we ultimately had to show in the later part how he was playing the game.”
According to Hur, Jang, who interestingly co-starred with Cecilia Cheung in Chen Kaige's 2005 film The Promise, is China's favourite Korean actor. “I think Chinese culture is not so different to Korean culture and Chinese audiences are important for us,” says Jang. “So I'm very happy to work in films in China.”
He was more than happy too to work with Zhang, China's biggest female star. “She's actually starred in a Korean film when she worked with some of my friends, so I'd heard good things about her. We were also previously going to make The Warrior's Way together but that didn't happen. While filming Dangerous Liaisons she was a real professional and an incredible perfectionist in terms of dissecting the character, so I feel like she has many faces and certainly could have played either of the female leads.”
Hur concurs he was happy that Zhang herself opted for the sweeter character, as like other directors he was keen to capture the actress's trademark wide-eyed beauty and onscreen purity and innocence.
For Zhang (who has reversed her names for the international market), working with her (non-English-speaking) Korean director and co-star required some patience. “It was very hard and we had many, many translators on set,” she recalls emphatically in English.
Had she seen Stephen Frears 1988 film where Michelle Pfeiffer had played a different version of her character?
“Yes, but it was a long time ago. After I got this offer I didn't watch any of the other movies. I didn't want to be distracted. I didn't read the book either. It's not a big deal in China. I don't even see Chinese versions.”
So this is like a new story for them in a way? “Somehow, yes. Not for the filmmakers because it is such a classic movie that everybody knows, but not the book.”