Judge Daryl Loomis knows just the right thing to say to score an extra donut.
To be on your bad side…that's danger.
While the original novel doesn't hold up that well today, Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos has become my absolute favorite material for film adaptations. I haven't seen every last one of them, but from the 1988 Dangerous Liasons by Stephen Frears to Cruel Intentions, it makes for some fantastic viewing and is adaptable in so many ways. Now, we have a Chinese version that takes place in 1930s Shanghai that, once again, is brilliant to watch.
Facts of the Case
Playboy Xie Yifan (Dong-gun Jang, The Warrior's Way, in the Valmont role) and businesswoman Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung, The Promise, playing the Merteuil part) are exceedingly wealthy and vindictive aristocrats who think they own Shanghai. Yifan has always been infatuated with Miss Mo, as she is known, but she has always kept him at an arm's reach. When she gets word, though, that one of her ex-lovers is about to marry the teenaged Beibei (Candy Wang), she wants revenge. So she makes Yifan a bet. If he can bed Beibei and take her virginity, he can finally have her. If he fails, he gives up a choice piece of property. Yifan agrees, but soon lays his eyes on a virtuous young widow named Du Fenyu (Ziyi Zhang, The Banquet) and sets his desires onto her. So begins a saga of passion and betrayal that won't end until everyone is destroyed.
Despite all coming from the same original material, every version has its charms and detriments, sometimes faithful and sometimes dramatically altered, all maintaining a basis in the book. This story of the rich eating the rich, where virtue is victimized and villainy is rewarded, is easily adapted to different kinds of films for a number of reasons. As we've seen from the popularity of soap operas (in which this story squarely lands) how much people like seeing the wealthy act badly, but it's more than that. It inspires lavish production values and employs beautiful young actors who are allowed to be evil, sexy, and chew the scenery. Ultimately, however the novel stands today, it's a gorgeous plot that keeps on giving, regardless of individual locales or piecemeal changes to the details.
This version, directed by Korean filmmaker Jin-ho Hur (A Good Rain Knows), is as lavish as any, and remains mostly faithful to the story, with a little bit of '30s Chinese politics thrown in to give it a foothold in its time and place. These changes are probably the film's biggest downfall (though really not that big at all), as they don't really have much to do with the overall plot and really only give a reason for Du Fenyu to have arrived in Shanghai. She could just as well have always lived there, but Geling Yan (Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl), who adapted the screenplay, added that bit of color that doesn't go anywhere.
That one bit doesn't detract from how fun Dangerous Liaisons is. This a deliciously mean film that looks fantastic and delivers great performances from the whole cast. Of all the great work done by actors in previous incarnations of Vicomte de Valmont, Dong-gun Jang might just be my favorite. His smirking charm and debonair swagger masks utter villainy, and when his emotions get the better of him while courting Du Fenyu (in the Madame de Tourvel part), he becomes more sympathetic than most would in his role. It doesn't change him into a good man, little could after the things he does, but it does give a hint of humanity that many couldn't manage so well. Cecilia Chung is almost as good as his counterpart, with all the elegance we expect from the role. They are kindred spirits, but high society treats them very differently. Everybody knows Yifan is a scumbag; mothers keep their daughters far away from him. but Miss Mo is treated like a virtuous queen, and the same mothers bring their daughters right into her arms, allowing her to work behind the scenes to destroy the lives of those around her while maintaining the illusion of virtue. The two actors have great chemistry together and the rest of the cast work around the pair very well.
The performances are great, but the film wouldn't work without the production keeping pace with them, and there's no doubt that Jin-ho Hur wields a strong directorial hand. It's not as sleazy as some of the previous adaptations (unfortunately), but there he puts in just enough sexuality to be titillating without taking it over the top. The reconstruction of 1930s Shanghai is brilliant, with streets, costumes, and mansions all giving a very clear sense of time and place. It adds a real dimension to the film, especially in the main estate where much of the plot occurs. It's gorgeous and huge, filmed with a glowing golden light that makes it in part a character of its own. It's so massive and full of detail that it seems like the producers must have found an actual vintage place, but it's an entirely fabricated set that couldn't look better if the place was real. This is a lovely film in all aspects. With only a few story hiccups to mar it, it's a very strong adaptation that proves itself in league with the other versions, all of which I like very much.
Dangerous Liaisons arrives on DVD from Well Go USA, a label that has an inconsistent track record, but this release is on the stronger side of the spectrum. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image looks very fine for a standard definition release. The golden hues of the interiors are bright and crisp and exteriors feature good detail. In the darker scenes, there is a little bit of muddiness in the black levels, but it's otherwise a very good looking transfer. The surround transfer isn't as strong as it could be, but it's not much of a problem. There's no noise and completely clear dialog; it just doesn't have that much dynamic range to it.
The extras aren't the disc's strong point, however. A 16-minute making-of featurette gives some pretty good information about the adaptation and the overall production, but it's too short to get into that much detail. Three brief behind-the-scenes pieces give some information about the three main characters. I assume they do, at least, because they aren't subtitled and I don't understand Mandarin Chinese. Still, there are pretty images of the beautiful actors, so it still has that going for it. Four trailers, three for Chinese audiences, and one for the US, complete the disc.
This story of rich people screwing and screwing each other over is such great fodder for adaptation, it seems like it would be hard to muck it up, and Dangerous Liasons is no exception. The locale is interesting and fits the story perfectly; the cast is a choice group who play their roles with high energy; the production is lavish and beautiful. Even if the story doesn't wrap up as cleanly as some other versions, one can't ask for a whole lot more from a version of Les Liaisons dangereuses. Highly recommended.
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Studio: Well Go USA
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