It seems there are some tales we can just never get enough of. While mainstream cinema endlessly remakes itself, super hero franchises rebooted, often more than once in the same decade, the art house crowd has its predilection for familiarity as well. If it’s not another adaptation of Shakespeare’s something or other, there’s a plethora of other canonical texts that cross multicultural barriers, and one of those happens to be Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel, Dangerous Liaisons, which has just been remade as a co-production between China and Singapore, helmed by Hur Jin-Ho, the award winning Chinese-South Korean director of Christmas In August (1998). Several definitive versions from several countries already exist, and here we have this lurid tale of mind games and sexual manipulation transported to 1931 Shanghai. While this is certainly one lavishly mounted production, the proceedings feel tired and drained, absent of malice and even titillating powers. For those familiar with the material, besides the language and location, there’s absolutely nothing new brought to material that’s been done better, several times before.
When a powerful, rich rival of hers announces his engagement to a virginal school girl named Beibei (Candy Wang), the imperious and power hungry Miss Mo (Cecilia Chung), approaches her ex-lover and infamous playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong Gun) to bed the virgin before their wedding night. Yifan considers this tasking a dull challenge and rather beneath his considerable powers of seduction. Instead, he has set his sights on seducing a rich widow, Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), who also happens to be his second cousin. Fenyu is a notoriously conservative prude. Miss Mo makes a bet with Yifan that he can’t bed the sexless woman, a challenge he accepts. If he wins, he gets what he really wants, which is Miss Mo herself. When Beibei’s mother asks Miss Mo to be her young daughter’s mentor to prepare her for her upcoming wedding, Miss Mo sets in motion an additional trap when she discovers that Beibei is carrying on a serious flirtation with her young art tutor. But as the mind games commence, something inexplicable happens, as Yifan actually finds himself falling in love with the quietly attractive Fenyu. But will he realize it before its too late?
The foremost reason to seek out Hur Jin-Ho’s version is the opulent rendering of 1930’s Shanghai, where much effort was made in recreating the look and feel of the time period. The lavish production value is indeed the film’s greatest asset, yet there are several instances where some of the backdrops look excessively cartoonish, which only manages to further cheapen the proceedings. While the original novel had significantly noticeable criticisms concerning France’s high society, here the political agenda of Shanghai in the 30’s is hinted at only to the vaguest degree, as we seem need to only understand that the upper classes have too much money and time on their hands, thus resorting to endless games of manipulation.
There are some very notable names here, particularly Zhang Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung, who both oddly seem extremely muted here. And well known South Korean actor Jang Dong Gun never quite manages to be believable as smarmy playboy or eventual love struck suitor. While the definitive adaptation still seems a distinction that belongs to the 1988 Stephen Frears version, in which the wicked cruelties of Glenn Close and John Malkovich cannot be topped (though the 1999 US modernized version, Cruel Intentions gives us Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Philippe camping it up for us), there are also notable French versions, like the 1959 Roger Vadim helmed version with Jeanne Moreau or a lavish 2003 French television miniseries with Catherine Deneuve and Rupert Everett. The point being, modernized, updated, or relocated, Dangerous Liaisons seems to be an enthralling and captivating tale of the lacerations of love, sex, and greed. But this toned down affair is only skin deep.