Dangerous Liaisons” is compelling, not necessarily because of its content but because this is a Chinese movie adapted from an 18th-century French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It has exactly zero working-class characters, not counting the occasional maid. That’s an event in itself. A decade ago, Chinese artists had a terrible time telling stories that involved anyone rich, lazy or privileged — the Communist Party wouldn’t allow it. As for anything that involved rich, lazy, privileged and sexual characters, pfft — forget it. As recently as 2007, copies of the novel “Shanghai Baby” were still being burned in public.
So you can’t help but think things are loosening up in the People’s Republic when a movie about wealthy, idle people spending most of their waking hours playing manipulative relationship games has actually been made with Beijing’s blessing. Though it should be noted that the director is Korean, not Chinese: Hur Jin-ho (“April Snow”), whose reputation extends as far as Japan but hasn’t quite made it across the Pacific.
The politics behind the making of the Chinese “Dangerous Liaisons” are intriguing, but let’s save that and move onto the movie. To give you the short version, while this no doubt goes down in the annals of Chinese movie history as the One That Dared, it’s still kind of short on the sexiness factor. Having taken risks with the material, it seems everyone decided to play it safe with the execution.
Hur’s version is elegant, excellently performed and gorgeous to look at. But for the steaminess and cruelty that characterized the original novel, it’s probably best to turn to Stephen Frears’ 1988 version. That reveled in the cruel and unusual, and brought home the point that games of manipulation are deeply damaging as well as deadly addictive.
The Chinese rendition has its own special flavor. And the sight of the cast decked out in resplendent silk dresses, dancing and chatting and not doing a lick of work (or engaged in hard action) is particularly restful on the eyes of anyone who has seen their fair share of movies from mainland China in the past decade. Consider the backdrop: Shanghai in the 1930s, when local aristocrats are hobnobbing at a charity ball for refugees from the Japanese occupation in Manchuria. In-her-30s-and-feeling-it socialite Miss Mo (Cecilia Cheung) meets up with an ex-lover, the fabulously rich playboy Xie Yifan (Dong-gun Jang). Miss Mo is vexed because she has just been dumped by a boyfriend for virgin schoolgirl Beibei (Candy Wang).
On a whim, she makes a bet with Xie. If he can bed Beibei only to plunder that flower, Miss Mo will give herself to Xie again. Xie agrees, but in his heart he’s far less excited about Beibei and Miss Mo than he is about his second cousin, the beautiful and innocent widow Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), who at the moment happens to be his house guest.
“Dangerous Liaisons” isn’t just about lust and love, but lucre too. Here’s the juicy part of Miss Mo’s deal: If Xie welshes, he will have to give Miss Mo a chunk of his land. So the playboy’s got to watch his step. But on the other hand, Miss Mo shows signs of falling for him all over again, even as fluttery Du is about to capitulate to his seduction.
Isn’t love grand? Sure, and as the movie reveals, money is even better.