Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 classic French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, a tale of sexual games among the ancien regime aristocracy, is one of the world’s most enduring and popular literary texts, having been adapted numerous times for films, television, and the stage. For filmmakers especially, this story of seduction has proved irresistibly seductive to directors wanting to make sexy, lushly produced costume dramas with glamorous movie stars. Adding to the tale’s allure is that it is eminently transportable across settings and eras, equally potent in both period and modern productions. The most notable film versions to date are Roger Vadim’s contemporized Les Liaisons dangereuses (1959), Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Milos Forman’s Valmont (1989), Roger Kumble’s modern day adaptation Cruel Intentions (1999), and E J-yong’s Untold Scandal (2003), set in 18th century Korea.
The latest iteration, Korean director Hur Jin-ho’s Mandarin version, takes place in early 1930’s Shanghai, painted as a time of opulent wealth and decadent behavior among the upper classes similar to that of pre-revolutionary France. The opening scenes, set to the strains of buoyant jazz, introduce the main players and their situations with gracefully stylish efficiency. Wealthy businessman Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) spends much of his time bedding every young, attractive woman in Shanghai. However, one stubbornly remains beyond his reach: the independent-minded entrepreneur and socialite Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung), an old friend of Yifan’s, and one he has had frustrated romantic designs on for a long time.
Miss Mo, smarting from the humiliation of being publicly dumped by tycoon Jin Zhihuan (Zhang Han) in favor of virginal 16-year-old schoolgirl Beibei (Candy Wang), seeks revenge. She tries to enlist Yifan’s help, asking him to deflower Beibei to make her unsuitable for marriage to Jin, who insists on wedding a virgin. Yifan at first refuses her request as “too easy,” setting his sights on more challenging game: his widowed distant cousin Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), a prim and proper woman just arrived from Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Soon, these two emotional warriors settle on a wager: if Yifan can successfully seduce Fenyu without falling in love with her, Miss Mo will offer herself as Yifan’s prize. These games of seduction and conquest eventually wreak extreme emotional destruction. The collateral damage in this sexual war also envelops Beibei, whose own budding romance with her drawing teacher falls victim to Miss Mo and Yifan’s machinations.
Opulently designed, this version re-creates 1930’s Shanghai in the golden tones and soft focus of old Hollywood glamour. As a big-budget spectacle, it is stylistically far removed from Hur Jin-ho’s previous small-scale and intimately emotional films, such as Christmas in August (1998), One Fine Spring Day (2001), and Happiness (2007). However, some of the delicacy of these earlier films comes through here and there amid the garish, soap-opera decadence on display. Censorship in China being what it is, it can’t go as far in sexual explicitness as, say, E J-yong went in Untold Scandal, which in intensity and performance is in many ways superior to Hur’s version. Still, Hur is able to convey the outsized passions effectively within these constraints.
The performances are Dangerous Liaisons’ biggest asset. Jang Dong-gun, whose rakish demeanor, complete with roguish mustache, often recalls stars such as Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, clearly relishes his role of the seducer extraordinaire and ably conveys the smarmy charm of Yifan. Cecilia Cheung is also quite riveting as the independent, self-sufficient woman who protects her heart and her emotions with the armor of cold calculation. But the true emotional center of this piece is Zhang Ziyi’s turn as the innocent caught in the web spun by two vipers. Zhang unerringly makes Fenyu a believable, sympathetic presence, with every tear and passionate sigh.
On the other hand, Dangerous Liaisons’ major weakness is its lack of true engagement with the political dimensions of its story. What gives the original novel, as well as its many adaptations, its power is how it connects the venal behavior of its principal characters with their milieu. De Laclos had many points to make about the corruption of the French aristocracy, the conditions of which set the stage for the revolution that would happen a decade after his novel was published. In Hur’s version, there are some peripheral nods to the political tenor of the period, with Japanese imperial designs on China looming as the dark clouds surrounding Shanghai’s decadent bubble. But these references are largely confined to mere window dressing, and precious little of these momentous historical events make much of an impact on the central story. Still, Dangerous Liaisons remains a diverting and beautifully designed film, and a well-acted piece of eye candy.