China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 110 mins.
Director: Heo Jin-ho 허진호 | 许秦豪.
Classy reworking, set in 1930s Shanghai, makes up in style what it lacks in emotional punch.
Shanghai, September 1931. Serial seducer Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-geon), a wealthy businessman, is introduced to his uncle’s grand-daughter, Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), when Xie Yifan’s maternal grandmother, Du Ruixue (Lu Yan), arrives at his apartment one day. Du Fenyu, a young widow who’s just arrived from Northeast China (aka Manchuria) where the Japanese are making incursions, is staying at the country home of Du Ruixue, who is her grand-aunt. At a glitzy fund-raiser for refugees thrown by Hudong Bank chairwoman Mo Jieyu (Zhang Bozhi) at Xie Yifan’s Golden River nightclub, Mo Jieyu, an old friend of Xie Yifan who’s never succumbed to his advances, asks him to rob Zhu Beibei (Wang Yijin), the 16-year-old fiancee of tycoon Jin Zhihuan (Zhang Han), of her virginity. Mo Jieyu wants revenge on Jin Zhihuan, for publically dumping her in favour of a schoolgirl. Xie Yifan turns down Mo Jieyu’s request, partly because he has another quarry in his sights – the quiet and retiring Du Fenyu. Sensing an opportunity for some sport, Mo Jieyu makes Xie Yifan a wager: if he can seduce Du Fenyu without falling in love, she will finally agree to sleep with him; if he fails, he will sign over a valuable piece of land to her. Xie Yifan accepts the challenge, but finds the virtuous Du Fenyu apparently immune to his charms. Meanwhile, Mo Jieyu employs a different strategy to get her revenge on Jin Zhihuan, encouraging an attraction between Zhu Beibei and her young drawing teacher, college student Dai Wenzhou (Dou Xiao). Despite Mo Jieyu’s strenuous efforts, the relationship is never consummated; but when she finds out about it, Zhu Beibei’s mother, Mrs. Zhu (Rong Rong), forbids her daughter to see Wenzhou anymore. With time running out, Mo Jieyu suggests to Mrs. Zhu that Zhu Beibei should spend some quiet time at Madam Du’s estate – and secretly arranges for Xie Yifan to be there, to “comfort” Zhu Beibei. Mission finally accomplished, Xie Yifan refocuses on seducing Du Fenyu, but finds himself in deeper emotional waters than he’s ever experienced.
To the inevitable question “Does the world need another adaptation of the French novel Dangerous Liaisons?”, the answer is a resounding yes, especially when it’s done with as much style and class as here. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 classic of cynical seduction (set prior to the French Revolution) has been transposed to several different settings in film and TV versions (the late 1950s French bourgeoisie, 1960s Paris high society, modern-day New York) but it’s taken a South Korean director, Heo Jin-ho 허진호 | 许秦豪, to spot another suitable parallel for the tale – hedonistic 1930s Shanghai, on the brink of extinction as war with Japan draws nigh. It’s a perfect fit, and Heo, who already made one feature in China (the cross-cultural romance A Good Rain Knows 好雨时节, 2009), employs lessons learned from that experience, building on that film’s strengths and eliminating its weaknesses.
Good Rain, set in the present, showed a natural feel for Mainland life while importing a South Korean glossy look and Heo’s talent for sketching emotional minutiae. Its main weakness was having the leads communicate in English, a language neither of the two stars (Gao Yuanyuan 高圆圆, Jeong U-seong 정우성 | 郑雨成) were comfortable in. Dangerous Liaisons 危险关系 gets rid of the latter problem by having all the dialogue in Mandarin, with lead actor Jang Dong-geon 장동건 | 张东健 convincingly lip-synched (by voice artist Zhang Jie 章劫) and Hong Kong actress Zhang Bozhi 张柏芝 [Cecilia Cheung], whose Mandarin is weak, likewise (by Chun Xiao 春晓), with a slight accent that fits her character as an overseas Chinese businesswoman. Working with the same production company (Zonbo Media) and d.p. (Gim Byeong-seo 김병서 | 金丙書) as on Rain, Heo bathes the movie in a succulent, high-gloss look that supports his personal take on the story: starting with a superb 15-minute opening, which sketches a web of characters and conflicting desires with amazing economy, the movie unfolds more as a sophisticated parlour game than as (in some adaptations) a drily cynical tale of moral comeuppance.
Heo (Christmas in August 8월의 크리스마스, 1998) is a romanticist at heart, and it’s arguable that Jang’s Valmont figure is just too nice and charming – instead of being disagreeably calculating – to give his eventual fall the power that Choderlos de Laclos intended. The film is at its best in the first hour or so, as the shennanigans of seduction are played out, rather than in the final section, which never really attains the tragic grandeur it ought to. Despite all that, Jang (Taegukgi 태극기 휘날리며, 2004; My Way 마이 웨이, 2011) melds with the Chinese cast in a way that few other South Korean actors have managed, given the major differences in performance styles and body language by the two races. With more natural charm and less physical attitude than most Korean leading men, he’s totally convincing as a slick Chinese playboy in 1930s Shanghai and manages to underplay the role without minimising it.
The other surprise is Zhang’s performance in the Marquise de Merteuil role, here reimagined as a high-society businesswoman. Now in her early 30s, Zhang still looks too young for the part but gives it a major shot, with her Eurasian looks, clever costuming and make-up, and considerable poise all creating a believable character of a master-manipulator. It’s a strong showing that the unpredictable actress badly needs at this point in her bumpy career. Compared with Zhang and Jang, Zhang Ziyi 章子怡 – as the hapless pawn, the Madame de Tourvel, in their game – comes across as rather colourless, though she does handle her later scenes with a convincing display of suppressed desire and, finally, some poignancy.
Among the supports, veteran Lu Yan 卢燕 [Lisa Lu] is effortlessly commanding as the grand-aunt of Zhang’s character, while Shanghai TV and theatre actress Rong Rong 荣蓉 has the peachiest part as an ambitious society mother. As her hot-to-trot teenage daughter, 20-year-old Wang Yijin 王奕瑾 makes a memorable debut in the Cécile role, overshadowing Chinese Canadian actor Dou Xiao 窦骁 [Shawn Dou] (Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂树之恋, 2010) as her artist boyfriend.
Aside from Hong Kong p.d. Huang Jialun 黄佳伦 (Lan Yu 蓝宇, 2001; The White Dragon 小白龙情海翻波, 2004), who provides a handsome but obviously filmy look to 1930s Shanghai, Heo largely imports South Korean technical talent, notably composer Jo Seong-u 조성우 | 赵成禹 and editor Nam Na-yeong 남나영 | 南娜咏, both of whom keep the movie light and fluid. Their considerable contribution is especially notable in the opening scenes (combined with Gim’s sensuous, flowing camerawork) and in a sequence at an opera theatre which combines two separate pieces of action into one seamless setpiece.
Untold Scandal 스캔들 조선 남녀 상열지사 (2003), the sumptuous version by director Yi Jae-yong 이재용 | 李在容 transposed to Joseon-era Korea, is the best known Korean adaptation. But Heo’s movie is actually the third by a South Korean director, starting with modern-day Dangerous Liaison 위험한 관계 (1970) by Go Yeong-nam 고영남 | 高荣男. Heo’s version lacks the dramatic power and sexual politics of Yi’s, but on its own terms more than justifies its existence as a classy piece of mainstream entertainment.
Presented by Zonbo Media (CN). Produced by Zonbo Media (CN).
Script: Yan Geling. Adaptation: Yi Han-eol, Zhou Yan, Gim Byeong-seo, No Gyeong-heui. Novel: Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Photography: Gim Byeong-seo. Editing: Nam Na-yeong. Music: Jo Seong-u. Production design: Huang Jialun. Art direction: Cai Zhixi, Li Dapeng, Wu Fangling, Ye Zhuoqian. Costume design: Zheng Xiuxian, Li Qing. Sound: Wang Yanwei, Wang Gang. Visual effects: Huang Hongxian (Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design). Opera direction: Zhu Weigang.
Cast: Jang Dong-geon (Xie Yifan), Zhang Ziyi (Du Fenyu), Zhang Bozhi (Mo Jieyu), Dou Xao [Shawn Dou] (Dai Wenzhou), Lu Yan [Lisa Lu] (Du Ruixue), Rong Rong (Mrs. Zhu), Wang Yijin (Zhu Beibei), Ye Xiangming (Wu Shaopu, demonstrator), Xiao Shuli (Gui Zhen), Zhang Yun (Wen, Mrs. Zhu’s maid), Wu Fang (Hong, Mo Jieyu’s maid), Chen Guodong (Gen), Zhang Han (Jin Zhihuan), Xue Wei (young lady), Hao Yifei (teacher), Zong Xiaojun (police captain), Yang Fan (policeman), Gang Xiaoxi (dance girl), Zhang Zichen (Cai Lu, Xie Yifan’s driver), Piao Yanni (make-up woman), Yan Hongyu (photographer), Jiang Yiyi (manicure maid), Dong Hailong (reporter), Son Seong-jae (saxophonist), Leng Haiming (art director), Yang Chen (MC), Xiang Dong (lawyer), Yin Yanbin (Japanese officer), Ji En (foreign tailor), Li Shiping (young beggar).
Premiere: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight), 24 May 2012.
Release: China, 27 Sep 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 17 Oct 2012.)