A lusciously lensed, lubriciously limned costumer that effortlessly transposes the classic French novel “Dangerous Liaisons” to 18th century Korea, “Untold Scandal” is a 10-course treat for the eyes and ears. With his third feature, 38-year-old E J-yong vaults to the top ranks of Korean directors with a slyly poised entertainment that looks set for international kudos and tasty arthouse biz. Released locally on Oct. 2, just prior to its Pusan fest unspooling, pic has already set new records for a homegrown movie, clocking up 2.2 million admissions (roughly $11 million, twice its negative cost) in the first 10 days.
Film’s record advance bookings, and three-day total of 1.1 million admissions on 255 prints, was partly due to the casting of TV drama idol Bae Yong-jun in his first bigscreen role, alongside young female icon Jeon Do-yeon (“Happy End,” “No Blood No Tears”), as the object of his desire, and experienced actress Lee Mi-suk (from E’s first movie, “An Affair”), as the aristocratic manipulator of his lust.
However, the movie works just fine without any such familiarity with its thesps. For most crix at Pusan, pic took its place, alongside “Memories of Murder” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring” as one of three best Korean pics in a powerhouse year.
Written in 1782, Choderlos de Laclos’ novel, about a Machiavellian noblewoman who agrees to sleep with a notorious Casanova if he can seduce a chaste young widow, was written entirely as an exchange of letters. It’s already seen two well-known period versions by Stephen Frears (1988) and Milos Forman (“Valmont,” 1989), as well as two modern updates by Roger Vadim (1960) and Roger Kumble (“Cruel Intentions,” 1999). Current version not only alludes to the novel’s unique structure with several flurries of letter writing but also painlessly shifts the action from pre-Revolutionary France to the end of the outwardly conservative Chosun dynasty, then on the brink of change.
First introduced painting a portrait of a naked woman, Jo Weon (Bae) is an accomplished scholar and martial artist who’s rejected the strictures of public office for a life of private pleasure. The love of his life, but always unattainable, has been his elder cousin, Lady Jo (Lee), on the surface a model Confucian wife well versed in the classics but underneath a ruthless manipulator with a string of lovers.
In a demonstration of wifely power and further teasing Jo Weon, Lady Jo suggests he deflower So-ok (Lee So-yeon), who’s to become her husband’s concubine. It’s a task that Jo Weon passes off as a no-brainer, adding that a real challenge worthy of his skills would be to seduce Lady Jeong (Jeon), a famously chaste young woman and devout Catholic who hasn’t allowed a man in her life in the nine years since her husband’s premature death.
Sensing a game that can only end in the humiliation of both Jo Weon and Lady Jeong, Lady Jo agrees to sleep with him if he can provide incontrovertible proof of seducing the unseduceable widow.
Set largely in interiors and courtyards, the movie is structured as a delicious series of barbed conversation pieces and charged flirtations. A boat ride on a lake between Jo Weon and Lady Jeong is pregnant with glances; and two “chance” meetings between the two — in a bookshop and a side street — allow Jo Weon to play the noble man, at pains to stave off rumors that he’s a heartless womanizer.
The magic of the film is the way in which helmer E injects a considerable amount of humor into this dance macabre without diminishing the characters.
Though looking a tad young for the part, and sporting a distractingly fake goatee, Bae is fine as the quietly lascivious Jo Weon, even if he misses the darkness at the center of the character’s role. Lee Mi-suk and Jeon, however, are aces as the women in his life, the former whiplashing her inferiors with a raised eyebrow or tart remark and the latter managing the tricky balancing act of making Lady Jeong genuinely devout without being a naive pushover.
Though the film cuts less deep emotionally than Frears’ and Forman’s versions, it never pretends to their more realistic drama. There are almost no details of everyday life beyond the principals’ charmed, comfortable universe, and the use of European Baroque music on the soundtrack jars not at all, moving the picture along whenever it threatens to drown in its own sophistication.
Using the same p.d., Jeong Gu-ho, as on his stylish debut feature, “An Affair,” E creates an elegant, witty game of seduction in which the dialogue bristles and the cool, polished surfaces shine. Kim Byeong-il’s sharp lensing and Kim Heui-ju’s richly textured, color-coded silk costumes (whites, blacks, purples, yellows, reds and golds) are simply eye-watering.
For auds who find the recent costume dramas of veteran Im Kwon-taek (“Chunhyang,” “Chihwaseon”) rather bloodless, static trawls through Korea’s cultural history, “Untold Scandal” will come as a piquant delight. It’s a movie with one eye on the present without losing its focus on the past, and a rich testimony to the possibilities of Korean cinema.