'Dangerous Liaisons' Gets A Far-East Makeover
Relocating Dangerous Liaisons, the 18th-century French erotic intrigue, to 1930s Shanghai is a bold move. And yet it's not especially surprising. In Chinese movies, that city in that decade frequently serves as shorthand for decadence. And what could be more decadent than two debauched ex-lovers cold-heartedly planning to destroy the innocence of not one but two virtuous women?
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel has been adapted for the screen several times, notably by director Stephen Frears in 1988. This new version follows that one fairly closely, even restaging a few of the same shots. But director Hur Jin-ho and scripter Yan Geling tinker with the ending, in part to devise a happier fate for one of the major characters.
That's just one of the ways in which this Dangerous Liaisons is sweeter than Frears' version (or Milos Forman's less faithful, more interesting 1989 one, Valmont). Clearly designed for international appeal, the movie relies less on dialogue than previous adaptations did. It also features younger, more conventionally attractive performers in the roles Frears gave to Glenn Close and John Malkovich.
The Shanghai equivalents of those characters are Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung), a rich widow who has become a leading businesswoman, and wealthy playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun). Mo is angered to learn that a former flame is now engaged to a 16-year-old virgin, Beibei (Candy Wang), so she asks Xie to deflower the girl, which will end the betrothal. He declines, as he's focused on a different target: Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), another moneyed widow, but a straitlaced one who has devoted herself to charity rather than pleasure.
Mo bets Xie that he will fail to seduce Du; should he succeed, the prize is a night in Mo's bed. But there are some distractions for both. As Xie becomes more conscious of Beibei, his interest in her grows. And as she plots to ruin Beibei, Mo also entices the girl's true love, her young art teacher. The parallel conspiracies go according to plan for a time, but then begin to unravel, in part because of political chaos in China, which in the film's time frame is already partly controlled by Japan.
In a few scenes, the filmmakers make clever use of the popular uprising against Japanese rule. But they don't develop the conflict as a theme; Mo and Xie's ploys aren't treated as allegories of imperial gamesmanship, as they might have been.
Instead, 1930s Shanghai is here mostly to be picturesque, and except for some sketchy CGI exteriors, it is. Kim Byeung-seo's camera waltzes about among elegant sets dappled by golden simulated sunlight; the playful opening sequence glides through several rooms without a cut, but Hur also employs handheld shots and jumpy edits at more urgent moments.
Equally stylish is the cast, with the lovely Cheung especially memorable as the urbane mastermind who seems capable of controlling any situation. Jang is a bit more theatrical, but that suits his matinee-idol persona. And it's a pleasure to see Zhang, known for girlish parts in such movies as Memoirs of a Geisha, in a more grown-up role.
Transplanted to Westernized 1931 Shanghai, Dangerous Liaisons' plot loses a bit of its logic. Christian ideals of chastity aren't applicable, and frustration at the circumscribed roles of women — offered by de Laclos' female plotter as her motivation -- doesn't explain Mo, who's a successful entrepreneur.
But if the filmmakers don't have a substantial reason for a Shanghai-set Dangerous Liaisons, they do offer plenty of diverting ones. This is a relatively shallow entertainment, but its glossy surfaces certainly are, well, seductive.
More on Movies
Theater Review | May 21, 2013
Playwright Prince Gomolvilas and singer-songwriter Brandon Patton dish up a hilarious evening of Jukebox Stories with a new playlist every night. By Sam Hurwitt
Event | May 20, 2013
Björk performs Biophilia and pieces from other albums at Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, a former Ford assembly plant and a fitting otherworldly setting for the artist's expansive stage productions. By Ben Marks
Book Review | May 20, 2013
The activist and playwright takes readers on a journey to near-death and back, following her work in the Congo and her own battle with cancer in her poetic memoir In the Body of the World. By Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Art Review | May 19, 2013
Don't miss the SFAI class of 2013 and their year-end MFA exhibition at the strange and wonderful Old Mint building. By Sarah Hotchkiss
Theater Review | May 18, 2013
One Helen of Troy was enough trouble for the ancient world. What happens when you get five of them in the same room? By Sam Hurwitt
J.J. Abrams isn't the first guy to bait Star Trek fans by messing with the brand.
In his new HBO film, the acclaimed director examines the five-year relationship between the flamboyant entertainer and Scott Thorson, who was 40 years Liberace's junior and still a teenager when they met. Michael Douglas plays Liberace and Matt Damon plays Thorson.
Launched as an alternative to the stale stylings of the '80s stand-up circuit, Beth Lapides' event bills itself as a venue for "idiosyncratic, conversational comedy." It's helped establish careers for performers from Kathy Griffin to Randy and Jason Sklar.
Melissa Block talks about the films generating buzz at the 2013 Cannes film festival with Steve Zeitchik, who covers film for the L.A. Times.
Also on KQED.org this week ...
We Need You!
Volunteer during our current on-air radio fundraising drive. It's a great way to support KQED Radio with your time. You can really make a difference!
Enter the New "ImageMakers" Screening Room
Enjoy films from present and past seasons of KQED's short independent film series, divided into Animation, Comedy, Drama, and Suspense.