Published Nov 08, 2012In setup, this latest rendition of the Choderlos de Laclos novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses transports the action from pre-French Revolution France to the dawn of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1931 Shanghai. Still within the world of the aristocracy, or the elite, and marked with opulence and high end indulgence, all framed with a pristine aesthete eye, this Asian variation on Dangerous Liaisons makes similar observations about class system distinctions, power dynamics and the instigators of conflict, adhering to the source material, only channelling passion and motivation in a culturally relevant light.
Initially cheeky and melodramatic, introducing the Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil characters ― here known as Fan (Dong-gun Jang) and Mo (Cecilia Cheung), respectively ― in the midst of games of seduction and power, with Fan walking away from a callous sexual tryst and Mo publically speaking about her success as an entrepreneur. Framed and costumed gorgeously, Mo carefully hides her anger over being dumped by a known tycoon for 16-year-old virgin BeiBei (Candy Wang), which leads her to concoct a scheme with the similarly morally abject Fan to bed, ditch and humiliate her.
The twist is that Fan wants to counter this bet with an attempt to similarly bed, deflate and destroy the charitable widow and socially progressive Fengyu (Zhang Ziyi) in exchange for a night with Mo. And, as we know, this isn't about sexual desires so much as it's about power, since Mo's disposition is one of calculated integrity, defending a wounded ego, much as Fan's motivation is about dominating and controlling the women and world around him, thus proving himself superior.
With a crisp, golden palette that's eventually washed away when tragedy strikes, the trajectory, both visually and thematically, is that of image perfection; every moment is a thing of beauty, with a hint of artificiality. As the emotions heighten and Fan starts to develop feelings for Fengyu (much to Mo's chagrin), the aesthetic becomes more grounded and the emotions sincerer.
In its own terms, Dangerous Liaisons is a successful take on class system divisions and the nature of maintaining the image of success as an inherently callous mode of performance. It's just that the familiarity of the material within a modern cultural lexicon leads to the inevitable, albeit odious, world of comparison, where the more epigrammatic and sharply cruel Stephen Frears adaptation lingers in the memory.
The characters here aren't as harsh, nor are they as disturbingly unforgiving. Where Malkovich seduced with callous indifference of the outcome, Jang's disposition is more flirtatious and regretful, much like Cheung is more if a self-consciously damaged, but concealed human than the vindictive, deeply wounded Close. In such, the tragedy and emotion, though valid, come off as somewhat banal.
More intriguing is the placement of the story within '30s Shanghai, noting that opulent lives and broad class system distinctions in the face of surrounding tragedy often lead to territorial wars of entitlement and appropriation.
And if history repeated itself in France and China, what's to stop it from happening again, if not already? (Well Go)