"Dangerous Liaisons" has legs. The novel was published during the ancient regime before the French Revolution washed away all the sexual intrigue of bored aristocrats.
If its characters are gone, their story remains relevant. In the last half century alone, it has been adapted for radio, TV, stage, opera, and several film versions. Now South Korean director Hur Jin-Ho has recast the story in 1930s Shanghai.
It’s best to watch this with a bit of Chinese history under your belt. War with Japan looms, with Manchuria already occupied and student-led protests urging the Nationalist government to fight. But the upper classes pay less attention to their nation’s travails than their own steamy boudoir politics of seduction, lust, revenge and betrayal.
Cecilia Cheung and Dong-gun Jang are effective as the amoral conspirators, although the latter might strike Westerners as being eminently resistible and lacking the charisma young John Malkovich brought to the 1988 version. Like Ziyi Zhang, the wary but naïve widow targeted for the sheets, all the young fresh-faced actresses embody the porcelain beauty of Chinese women.
Having visited Shanghai, I savored scenes on crowded and colorful Nanjing Road and swooping CGI shots of the Bund. On the other hand, a country mansion where much of the action takes place seems more Downton Abbey than Prince Gong Mansion. Lisa Lu as a patrician hostess even resembles a better-preserved Maggie Smith, albeit without the dowager’s wry unpredictability.
Enjoyable on its own terms, this "Dangerous Liaisons" lacks some of the malicious bite and evolved cynicism of the Western versions. It’s a light and enjoyable entertainment that will stick to you no more than the proverbial Chinese meal.
China has declared its intention to be a major force in cinema, underscored by casting A-lister Christian Bale to star in the 2011 epic "Flowers of War." The big breakthrough, however, is yet to come.
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