A womanizing playboy and his scheming ex-lover play destructive power games in this ravishing relocation of an 18th century French literary classic to 1930s Shanghai. Already adapted for the big screen multiple times, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos clearly has evergreen appeal across cultural, language and age barriers.
Premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, this latest remake by the Chinese-Korean director Hur Jin-Ho falls short of the most celebrated version, directed by Stephen Frears in 1988. But glossy production values, a universally familiar plot, and the presence of international names like Zhang Ziyi in the cast should ensure modest commercial interest in foreign markets.
In roles made famous by John Malkovich and Glenn Close respectively, the suave Korean actor Jang Dong-gun brings a Clark Gable louchness to the role of heartbreaking libertine Xie Yifan. A luminous Cecilia Cheung also oozes toxic charm as his manipulative sparring partner, the wealthy femme fatale Mo Jieyu. Cast against her usual sex-kitten type, Zhang Ziyi steps into Michelle Pfeiffer’s shoes as Du Yufen, an earnest young widow who becomes a key pawn in Fan and Mo’s revenge-driven seduction wager. But playing poker with other people’s hearts can backfire, as Fan finds when he falls in love for real with the target of his fraudulent advances. It can only end in tears – and worse. ?
Shanghai in its bustling 1930s prime has always held dramatic appeal for filmmakers as the historical flashpoint where China’s bright young things partied away the jazz age against a backdrop of gangland wars, political insurrection and imminent Japanese invasion. Films that have recreated this glamorous locale include Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad, James Ivory’s The White Countess, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and – set a few years later – Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. ?
Hur Jin-Ho’s adaptation reimagines Shanghai as an opulent eastern mirror image of 18th century Paris or 19th century Vienna, with its grand operas, bed-hopping aristocrats and lavish society balls. The costumes are a blazingly colorful pageant of velvet and silk, the opulent interiors cathedrals to Art Nouveau grandeur. All gleaming chrome and polished mahogany, gold leaf and stained glass, the film is an immersively sensual experience. ?
Less impressively, the sets are mostly stagey and too brightly lit. Some of the backdrops look cheap and badly integrated, while an exterior street location recurs with suspicious regular throughout the action. The score, mostly consisting of a persistent and syrupy orchestral waltz, also becomes intrusive at times. ?
Following the French Revolution, the original Choderlos de Laclos novel was hailed in some quarters as a critique of the corrupt decadence of France’s old elite. Similar historical hindsight could be read into this remake, which damns the self-destructive sensualists of pre-Communist China as haughty, scheming, pathological sadists. But if so, any political subtext is buried very deeply. The street protestors who feature tangentially in the action are never even contextualized for non-Chinese audiences. This is not a deep movie.
An interesting twist on a classic plot, Dangerous Liaisons is essentially a deluxe soap opera. But with its beautiful cast and gorgeous production design, it is still a highly enjoyable way to waste two hours.
Venue: Cannes, Directors’ Fortnight screening, May 24
Production company: Zonbo Media, Homerun Asia
Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Dong-gun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Lisa Lu, Shawn Dou
Director: Hur Jin-Ho
Producer: Weiming Chang
Sales company: Arclight Films