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February 05, 2013

Dangerous Liaisons

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Hur Jin-Ho - 2012
Well Go Entertainment USA BD A

I'm certain that Asian audiences and those who follow celebrity news may have found it less than coincidental that a film about sexual intrigue and scandal would star Cecilia Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. Be that as it may, Cheung is luminous while Zhang is markedly subdued in this new variation based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. 18th Century France is replaced by 1931 Shanghai, so that there is constant pushing and pulling between Shanghai's status as an international, and cosmopolitan city, but also a Chinese city where certain traditions and cultural values hold sway. Also, politically, Shanghai is now controlled by Japan, where acts of nationalism disrupt the cause suspicion between people.

Most interesting to me is how flexible the essential story is for adaptation to film, both in when and where the story takes place. This isn't even the first Asian adaptation. I would recommend E J-Young's The Untold Scandal, from 2003, which takes place in 18th Century Korea. Rather than royalty, we have a wealthy playboy, Yifan, and two youngish widows, the business woman, Jieyu, and the virtuous, philanthropic Fenyu. Gamesmanship and seduction are played out, with the hint of a possible happy ending for the two most innocent characters. The name may have a Chinese meaning I am unaware of, but I am certain that screenwriter Yan Geling intended a phonetic joke by having the young girl named Beibei.

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In the supplemental "Making of , , ,", one of the producers mentions that Leslie Cheung was the original choice to play Yifan. One can only imagine how well that might have worked. Jang Dong-gun goes against type here, playing a mustached man of fashion, and in no way heroic. The extent of his charm is in the opening scene where Yifan is woken by a mistress who come to his house. The woman finds another woman in Yifan's bed. The two woman fight it out about their claims on Yifan, while he nonchalantly sips his morning coffee.

I wish there had been more supplementary footage devoted to Lisa Lu. In a supporting role as Yifan's grandmother, Lu is quite spry, and still active at age 86. I couldn't watch her without thinking about the history she carries with her of a career that began in Hollywood, mostly in television series guest shots, in 1958. It's also with her history that in her performance, it is fitting that Lu plays a matriarch who's probably seen and done almost everything in life, and can anticipate what those around her will do, even before they know themselves.

Hur Jin-ho is a curious choice to have directed this Chinese-Korean production. Hur's best known film, Christmas in August is a sweet story about unrealized love between a young parking attendant and a single middle aged man who keeps his terminal illness a secret. Maybe because Dangerous Liaisons is a much bigger production, it's harder to have a similar sense of passion or intimacy. Much of the drama is carried by the spectacular costumes and set designs. There are moments when everything comes together as near the end, with Jieyu receiving and wearing a posthumous gift, a white dress from Yifan, white in Chinese culture being the color associated with death.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 5, 2013 07:52 AM