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.