An adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel transposed to 1930s Shanghai, “Dangerous Liaisons” plays it safe, evoking old-school Hollywood romances without new stylistic variations. Hur Jin-ho orchestrates an elaborate ensemble with as much suavity as Valmont employs in his sexual stratagems, but in contrast with that repentant rogue, the South Korean helmer’s professional calculation never melts into genuine love for his subject. Possessing all the sophistication of a Korean studio project enhanced by the gilded charm of its period setting, this Chinese-Singaporean co-production could seduce auds across Asia and continue as a long ancillary affair.
Scribe Yan Geling (author of “The Flowers of War”) brings out parallels between the social unrest of Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese invasion, and France on the brink of revolution in “Les Liaisons dangereuses.” However, instead of de Laclos’ entitled aristocracy, the circle portrayed here consists of entrepreneurs jostling for prominence in an upstart enclave of opportunism. This lends their charmed existence a feigned, ephemeral air with contempo relevance for China’s nouveau riche.
Privileged playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun, “My Way”) meets his second cousin Du Fengyu (Zhang Ziyi), who’s come from Dongbei (then Manchuria) to visit Yifan’s grandmother (Lisa Lu, imposing). The young widow’s demure beauty does not go unnoticed.
At a charity ball, Yifan flirts with social butterfly extraordinaire Mo Jieyu, aka Marraine (Cecilia Cheung), who’s always flitted out of his grasp. She challenges Yifan to a wager: He must humiliate her old flame by deflowering his 16-year-old fiance, Beibei (Candy Wang, fresh but ripe), before their wedding. If Yifan succeeds, Jieyu is his.
Dismissing the teen as a pushover, Yifan offers two for the price of one, vowing to seduce the virtuous Fengyu as well. Beibei’s adoring art tutor (Shawn Dou, endearingly straight-laced) presents a slight obstacle for Yifan, but far more challenging and ultimately devastating is the ardent reaction he ignites in Fengyu.
Despite the novel’s epistolary form, letters are kept to a minimum as a narrative device. Hur judiciously applies a handful of stock tricks, using soft focus aplenty, closeups that caress objets d’art and protags’ faces with equal tenderness, and a sentimental orchestral score by Hur’s frequent composer, Cho Sung-woo. The moment of consummation is withheld until 75 minutes into the pic, when tensions explode in one breathtaking sequence. Everything comes together fluidly, swept along by pacing that keeps time with the protags’ fluctuating heartbeats. Other scenes, such as a night at the Beijing opera that intertwines sexual and political intrigue, rep smooth variations on past tellings of the tale.
“Dangerous Liaisons” marks Hur’s second mainland helming credit (after “A Good Rain Knows” which featured another Chinese-Korean thesping combo, Gao Yuanyuan and Jung Woo-sung). Given the subtlety of his storytelling, which would ideally push thesps to new depths, it’s disappointing that the three leads’ capacities are not sufficiently stretched here; the perfs pale next to those in “Untold Scandal,” EJ Yong’s Chosun Dynasty-era version of the story. Zhang hits the right pitch at every stage of her emotional ordeal, but impresses rather than moves. For Jang, who could play a Casanova while catnapping, the role of Yifan isn’t exactly a breakthrough.
Only Jieyu’s portrayal brings a fresh alternative to the material. Younger and more glamorous than Madame de Merteuil interpreters like Glenn Close in Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons” and Lee Mi-sook in “Untold Scandal,” she is not embittered about waning desirability. Reinvented as a fashion mag publisher and property magnet, she boasts the career ambitions of a modern femme, thus making her refusal to be Yifan’s plaything, or any man’s, a declaration of independence. This reading is ably backed by Cheung, who plays it spunky rather than conniving.
Production and costume design are a sensuous come-on. The pic exploits 1930s Shanghai’s legacy as the center for some of the finest French architecture, mounting sumptuous chambers and mansions that hold up a virtual mirror to turn-of-the-century Gaul.