THE story and its players look different in the latest screen iteration of Dangerous Liaisons, but the venomous passions remain repellently, seductively familiar.
Bankrolled by Chinese money and directed by a South Korean filmmaker, Jin-ho Hur, this Chinese-language version of the 18th-century French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos opens in Shanghai in 1931, when the city was known as the Paris of the Orient. (Now it’s just the centre of the world.) That year a fighting-trim Mao Zedong helped create the Chinese Soviet Republic, and Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria, setting up a puppet government. The second Sino-Japanese war was six years away.
Geopolitical tensions simmer at the outermost edges of Dangerous Liaisons, which mostly unfolds as a divertingly lush tear-stained melodrama.
Written by Yan Geling, it follows the overall streamlined contours and devious intrigues familiar from Stephen Frears’ 1988 film of the Christopher Hampton stage adaptation.
Once again a suave rake, Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun, wearing a Clark Gable smirk and ‘stache), spends his nights busily bedding the local talent and his days sharing gossip with a female counterpart, Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung). They are effectively the Shanghai match of Laclos’ Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, the twinned vipers who, while nestled in the bosom of the city’s high society, conspire to seduce, conquer and destroy their prey.
Like ants fatefully drawn to honey, Xie and Mo’s conquests seem very helpless and very doomed.
Shortly after the movie opens Mo is pointing Xie toward a new target, the virginal Beibei (Candy Wang), a giggler in knee socks. Xie’s gaze lingers over a widow, Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), but Beibei proves the bigger prize because she and her virginity have been promised to a power broker.
From how she flutters her lashes at her art teacher, Dai Wenzhou (Shawn Dou, behind a curtain of boy-band hair), Beibei appears eager to learn the ways of the flesh. Those plotting to help in her education feed the drama, as does the question of whether they will land triumphantly vertical or broken on the bed of their own destruction.
Schadenfreude carries a delectable tang no matter the language, and as the history of Hollywood shows, stories about pretty people behaving badly remain reliably alluring. How such beauties go rancid, and why, changes from decade to decade, and it’s worth pointing out that Hampton’s play and Frears’ adaptation both landed in the 1980s, during the Thatcher and Reagan eras.
This Dangerous Liaisons carries a suggestion of contemporary commentary too. As chanting protesters take to the streets, waving placards and shouting praise about China, the film’s decadent loveliest remain singularly oblivious to the political tremors starting to shake their world. Given how fast, almost eagerly Hur turns to his story’s glossy charms, audiences may not notice those tremors either.
I n i t i a l l y Dangerous Liaisons holds you with its sumptuous production design and costumes, despite a few choices that look as out of time as Dou’s Bieber-esque swoop. Hur seems content simply to polish his film’s luxurious facade, particularly with close-ups that loom like billboards for powdered cheeks and glossy hair. As the players and stakes shift, there’s little evidence of the emotional texture that Frears brought to his film and certainly none of the pop culture savvy that fizzed up Cruel Intentions, a telling of the tale with high schoolers. But when Zhang Ziyi weeps, her tremulous, heartshuddering performance sends cracks across the film, and you grasp that the movie’s meaning never existed only on its surface but also in what lies beneath.