Some stories simply refuse to die. Such is the case for Pierre Choderlos De Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons, which has been adapted and played out in almost as many variations as Romeo and Juliet. The definitive version has to be Stephen Frears’ lush and nasty 1988 adaptation starring a perfectly cast Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pheiffer, but there have been many adaptations from overlong mini-series editions to a high school set 90s version for kids who just can deal with period drama (Cruel Intentions). Now we have a fresh edition from China with director Jin-ho Hur transplanting the familiar tale from 18th Century France to 1930s Shanghai. The new setting suits the themes well and Hur has certainly supervised a gorgeous recreation of the past with intriguing performances. The only trouble is (as with so many overdone adaptations) that the story is painfully familiar and the filmmakers add little while toning down the nastiness of the subject matter ever so slightly. It’s still a perfectly entertaining and sumptuously mounted production, just one of those movies that struggles to justify its own existence.
The film follows the narrative beats of De Laclos’ tale exactly, almost slavishly. The story opens at a charity ball for refugees from the Japanese occupied east in a glamorous, opulent period Shanghai. There socialite Mo Jieuyu (Cecilia Cheung) runs into a former lover and serial leg-spreader Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun). Mo was recently heartbroken when her latest wealthy beau ditched her for a virginal school girl. Embittered and hungry for revenge, Mo strikes a deal with Xie. If Xie can use his powers of seduction to deflower an earnest young widow Du Yufen (Zhang Ziyi), he will be rewarded with another round in the sack with Mo. That’s all the horndog needs to hear and immediately sets out on his sexual quest. The only trouble is that after spending time with the girl working his charm, Xie starts to fall in love with Du. That complicates the wager and pisses off the wealthy Mo. Crisscrossing, dirty secrets, and the revenge to follow.
No matter what the adaptation, this story always remains the same because there’s something endlessly fascinating, dirty, and powerful about the plot De Laclos whipped up long ago. Sexual boundaries may have changed dramatically in the centuries since the novel was penned, but the sadistic mind games remain just as potent. The new 30s Shanghai setting suits the material quite well. The outward sexual repression and secret hedonism of De Laclos’ France slots comfortably into the new setting and even the original author’s critique of the corruption and decadence of 18th century Paris translates well to the excess of pre-Communist China. So, the material comes across with all of the subtexts in tact. Jin-ho Hur shoots the Shanghai setting gorgeously, with Lush cinematography, massive sets, and billowing costumes creating a pretty sheen for all of the characters’ dirty dealings to soil. The director also cast the picture quite well with Dong-gun adding Clark Cable charm to his greedy perv, Cheung perfectly presenting evil through a smile, and the usual kung fu sexpot Ziyi cast well against type as the film’s quiet innocent. On a purely superficial level, the movie achieves its goals with style and class. Unfortunately, it’s not really a film that can survive purely on surface pleasures.
As gorgeous as Hur’s film can be to look at, there’s something lacking. The material feels very cold, as if executed as a purely stylistic exorcise. For a story this emotional, dark, and downright dirty, that approach seems to sanitize the source. Sure the old tale doesn’t have the same shock value anymore, but there should at least be a sense of menace and perversity to the film that Hur never quite captures. His film is simply too elegant to effectively represent the human ugliness at it’s core and doesn’t have the impact that it should. Given how many big screen adaptations of Dangerous Liaisons already exist, even a simple oversight like that is enough to hurt this movie significantly. When you know how well this material can work based on the Frears version, it’s undeniably disappointing to see a new adaptation that doesn’t even go that far. Now that said, if you can remove Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons from your mind along with all the previous adaptations, there’s no denying that it is still a strong piece of work. Judged entirely on its own merits, this is an effective adaptation, but the challenge with taking on such a familiar tale is finding a way to make it feel fresh again while still living up to all of the previous incarnations. Unfortunately you can’t really say that about this version is a success on that level, so you may wander out of the theater wondering why it even exists. Ah well, at least there’s some perverse and cinematic fun to be enjoyed along the way. It’s not much, but it’s something and probably all that should have been expected from the project.