Dangerous Liaisons is a 2012 Chinese film by Hur Jin-ho based on the novel with the same title by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It has been adapted five times to date, including the eponymous Hollywood film and Untold Scandal from South Korea. When Stephen Frears did his hit movie in 1988, based on Christopher Hampton’s fine stage version, he had de Laclos’ tragedy played for laughs and pathos, and let his leads – John Malkovich and Glenn Close – delight in epigrammatic dialogue. But the tone and feel of this picture is a much trickier proposition. Less verbal and more feverish in mood than any other version I’ve seen, Jin-ho paces the action out in a way that’s as seductive as his characters.
Of course the cultural setting moves from Paris to Shanghai and a different period: this is less problematic as the hedonism and social excess remain the backdrop. It’s a valid idea, to set it in 1930s Shanghai, and the story still resonates. “What we want to say is that if relations between men and women are treated like a game, it will end in tragedy,” director Hur said. True, as love and relationships doesn’t need an language to come across on screen. And that’s my other reservation: this screenplay is less barbed, less cruel, more banal than is Hampton’s. And with that, I’ll let the comparisons between the two go. The significance of change, with the story unfolding just before the French Revolution, somehow lost its touch in this Chinese adaptation, which had anti-Japanese sentiments in that era.
As our editor John Rose pointed out last month, Legendary Amazons was garbage, so it was nice to see a good period piece. Keeping a couple apart by telling the audience that a relationship isn’t valid if the people involved don’t share similar social statuses or breaking a marriage because the virgin that a rich and famous man is going to marry suddenly becomes a non-virgin isn’t new, to be sure, but it’s interesting to see a movie hit on these concepts to propel its story into richer complexity. Still, what’s good about the film is Jin-ho’s commitment to old-fashioned melodrama. Dangerous Liaisons is like a punch to the heart.
Cannes audiences have been mostly enamored with “Liaisons,” giving the film enthusiastic ovations when it premiered earlier this week. Whether a global audience will respond the same way remains unclear. For me, it was high-brow love, told very elegently, but I’m not sure it will catch on here in the West. Its backers, however, say they believe the movie’s themes are one of its biggest selling points. “The human concerns make this a movie for everyone,” said Chen. “the relations between the sexes is something everyone can relate to.” How very true.