What Do You Want?
Based on the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Perre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons got a memorable screen adaptation through Stephen Frear's film with the likes of Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman playing pivotal roles in a tale of power, corruption and the use of sex as a manipulative weapon amongst the rich and idle. While the original tale is set in France before the French Revolution, this Chinese version sets it in the tumultuous period in 1930s Shanghai, retaining key plot developments and characters from the novel
Screened at the Cannes Film Festival Director's Fortnight sidebar, this Chinese production, directed by Korean Hur Jin Ho, who did April Snow, doesn't offer anything new to those who are familiar with the original tale, or various adaptations already done for the screen and stage. To the uninitiated, it deals with the games the rich engage in play in, using each other's resources to tangle and play with the feelings and emotions of others, just because they can, or in essence, to hit below the belt of one's enemies, striking straight into the ego and pride. And relationships built are nothing but temporal and fleeting, for the purpose of advancement, with self interests put above anything else.
I mean, who puts mirrors on ceilings, if not to reflect on one's narcissism? Which is just about what Cecilia Cheung's character of Miss Mo, central to the plot and chief manipulator, does for her mansion of opulence. The primary villain in the film, the character is the classic smiling assassin, who seem to befriend you with honesty and sincerity, only to be wielding a butcher's knife behind your back, ready to strike. A trophy wife who had made it good when her husband passed on, she's what would be top of the list if Forbes was doing the richest, most powerful and influential list of women in Shanghai, to whom everyone kowtows to. And her objective here is simple, to get the playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong Gun) bed the virginal Beibei (Candy Wang), in order to slap the face of a rich rival who is determined to marry a virgin.
But for Yifan, Beibei is not a challenge, because his sights is firmly set on the recently widowed Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), his second cousin who is now staying in his mansion. For all his wit, charm and style that made countless of women fall under his spell, he cannot seem to get through to Fenyu who has been resisting all his advances, and I suppose nothing appeals more to Yifan than a real challenge. At one point he admits that he never would dare cross Miss Mo, and given the knowledge of Beibei's mother badmouthing him to Fenyu, he accepts Miss Mo's challenge and bet, and the manipulative games are all set to begin, for unexpected consequences to all parties who allow true emotions be involved, and putting everyone in a fix whether to trust their hearts, or heads and the respective reputations that precede them.
For its rich production values in recreating costumes and sets for 30s Shanghai, obviously the filmmakers decided not to pay attention to other details, such as the accuracy of the English subtitles, which is horrible for a production of this scale and magnitude, with ambition to appeal to the Western world. It was bad to the point that you'll be paying attention to the next line of subtitle to spot yet another typo, which is distracting to say the least, taking attention away from what is happening on screen. 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, but obviously played down given the socio-political situation of today. So we don't get any macro-influences, with this version firmly involving micro-relations between all the characters.
While the characters themselves are one-dimensional for epitomizing certain values associated with them, the delivery could have been ramped up by the star studded cast made up of actors from China, Hong Kong, and South Korea, who seem to have been miscast in the film. Cecilia Cheung still needs a better role for her comeback to the entertainment scene, since Speed Angels was really straight to video material, and Legendary Amazons was a total joke under the guise of a period action film. Here, her Miss Mo cannot seem to wipe away her hypocritical smile, and nary does she threaten convincingly as the master of manipulation at the top of her game, unable to shake the rust from her absence.
Zhang Ziyi too had roles which were more challenging than the one she played here, and is often reduced to icy cold stares, or is trying too hard to act demure, or clingy, as the housewife who has that streak of rebellion in her, which was never crystallized in full. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if Cheung and Zhang swapped roles. Jang Dong Gun seemed to have been cast not only for his good looks, but to allow the South Korean market to be open for this film to make inroads in. But he's just too clean cut for the role, unlike say, Lee Byung-Hun, who has this natural streak of playfulness, and roguish demeanour to have made it a lot more convincing.
Still, for those unfamiliar with the Dangerous Liaisons story, this film could be your introduction to it, except that since it's a Chinese production, do expect sexually tense situations to be watered down for mass PG consumption. It does it job to introduce the tale, but is hardly one of the best adaptations around.