At a certain point, the supposed universality of a story, and what is apparently its infinite ability to be adapted, interpreted and reconfigured begins to call into question the idea of over saturation in the market, (i.e. the desire of filmgoers everywhere to see yet another version of a familiar story) and whether or not the newest interpretation brings something significant to the table, or if it is simply an adaptation of the version that most recently came before?
In 2012, director Jin-ho Hur added to this question when he adapted the 18th century French novel 'Les liaisons dangereruses' into his somewhat lavish vision of 1931 Shanghai, bringing with it all the libertinism, materialism and decadence that has been issued before. Hur's 'Dangerous Liaisons' certainly benefits greatly from its unique milieu, which it takes great pleasure in referencing, but atop all that glitz and period-specific excess (both in the film and the filmmaking) there sits a vision that lacks a considerable amount of intensity and sensation in relation to the tale it is associated with.
Of course, the novel has been adapted a handful of times already; perhaps most famously by Stephen Frears (himself adapting Christopher Hampton's stage play of the novel) in the 1988 film 'Dangerous Liaisons,' starring Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich. And then there is the more teen-friendly version starring Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe, 'Cruel Intentions'. Whether or not these versions, along with the many, many others have somehow influenced Hur's vision remains to be seen, but while watching his visually interesting take on the proceedings, one thing becomes clear: There is no doubt the previous versions will have an influence on how audiences (especially international ones) will receive this newest adaptation of 'Dangerous Liaisons.'
The film's screenplay was written by Geling Yan – who notably wrote the novel 'The 13 Flowers of Nanjing,' on which the overly melodramatic, incessantly maudlin and politically broad WWII film 'The Flowers of War' was based – so this affords her the opportunity to interpret the work of another writer, and insert various distinguishing elements into the storyline – which she does primarily by setting the familiar narrative against the backdrop of pre-war Shanghai. But other than offering a whole new environment, and unique period-specific details (all of which are filmed sumptuously, I might add), Yan's version of 'Dangerous Liaisons' offers little in the way of explaining how the unique portions affect the overall narrative. Yes, there's the advantage of '30s-era technology and fashion choices, the characters whiz around in chauffeured cars, engage in scheming via telephone and enjoy all of the double-entendres that screwing in a light bulb might entail – but other than that, nothing new or emotionally complex is brought to the table.
At the center of the story are the wealthy, bored and morally ambiguous Xie Yifan, played by Jang Dong-gun and Mo Jieyu, played by Cecilia Cheung. Yifan (or Fan, as he's known) and Mo are ostensibly the sexually charged protagonists of the film; members of the idle rich who are depicted as emotionally hollow, enraptured by decadence and materialism and prone to using sex as a means by which they seek both personal gratification and the humiliation of others. For her part, Mo deals with the rejection of a wealthy industrialist, who is now planning to marry the virginal BeiBei (Candy Wang), while Fan has just set his sights on Du Fenuyu, played with virtuous charm by Ziyi Zhang. Mo intends to use her beguiling beauty and Fan's obsession with her to entice the playboy into bedding Beibei before her husband-to-be – thereby humiliating the businessman who humiliated her. Fan declines, stating Beibei isn't enough of a challenge, and besides, he's preoccupied with Du Fenyu. This decision leads Mo to offer a wager: If Fan can successfully seduce Du Fenyu and offer proof, she will give herself to him. If not, Fan must provide Mo with a business opportunity she has long desired.
Yan certainly should be commended for taking some liberties with the source material, and for setting the story against such a tumultuous backdrop. Such moves with a well-known story are valid attempts at making 'Dangerous Liaisons' feel fresh once more. But while this milieu is certainly interesting, Yan's script does little to provide any of the characters with a similar upgrade. Interpretation is the cornerstone of any adaptation, especially for a story that has seen countless iterations over the years, and eventually, no matter what kind of new presentation is offered, the story begins to stagnate, the characters' edges begin to dull and the whole thing wears thin. About a third of the way through 'Dangerous Liaisons' it becomes clear that the new setting is merely a coat of fresh paint – everything else is just paint-by-numbers.
The actors all give fine performances, with Jang Dong-gun and Cecilia Cheung being the standouts. And while the direction of Jin-ho Hur is very good, and the production looks as elegant as the lifestyles of Fan and Mo, this new version of 'Dangerous Liaisons' is just too familiar. Plopping recognizable characters down in a new setting needs to create circumstances that give the update its own individual meaning. Yan flirts with it briefly with talk of revolution and portend of war, but these elements are never developed enough to have any lasting impact on the characters in the story. Ultimately, this is a gorgeous facelift to an old story, but it proves to be an improvement in looks only, leaving this adaptation as shallow as the characters at its center.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dangerous Liaisons' is another release from Well Go USA Entertainment, so if you're familiar with their offerings, there's likely not going to be anything new for you here. The single 25GB disc is housed in a standard keepcase with an insert promoting several other releases from the company. The disc will auto play several previews before heading to the top menu.
Shot on 35mm, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer exhibits nearly all the well-regarded aspects of shooting on film. The image is incredibly warm and inviting; soft hues of gold and yellow are nearly ubiquitous throughout the picture. Light streams through windows, hinting of long, languid days spent idle in the warmth of the sun's rays, until the call of a nightlife known only to the affluent beckons. The actors' flesh tones have been rendered with similar appreciation to the film's chosen palate, adding to the general (and perhaps ironic) sense of warmth in the film.
The image boasts a delightful array of colors, all of which are rendered with the utmost brilliance, depicting some of the lavish lifestyles in dazzling ways. Although some scenes are burdened with a clunky, CGI background the image doesn't fail to make the colors look bright and elegant.
Still, while the colors look exceptional, the image does tend to skimp on fine detail in certain moments – not enough for the overall image quality to take a complete nosedive, but it is noticeable. Additionally, there is a grain sitting atop the image that does a great deal in adding to the overall warmth of the image, but can take away some of the finer aspects to the actors' faces and some texture elements in clothing and the like.
While the detail can dip from time to time, the overall contrast stays fairly consistent and the picture manages to maintain its black levels without ever losing image quality. Ultimately, this is a good image that has many more pluses than minuses, and when an image is capable of producing what must have been the director's intent, that is certainly reason to give some praise.
Stamped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track in the original Mandarin, 'Dangerous Liaisons' makes excellent use of the lossless sound by keeping things relatively low key, until revealing itself with some larger set pieces.
For the most part, the film's narrative is progressed through character dialogue – intimate dialogue at that – which rarely makes much use of anything other than the center channel, and occasionally the front right and left, but the mix does a very nice job of presenting it in a full, clear way that never misses a word or tonal inflection.
And while the film plays on a more intimate note, there are several occasions where the sound clearly stands out and displays just how robust it truly is. Cocktail parties, an evening at the opera and a demonstration that threatens to become violent all put the mix to good (but not great) use. Surround elements come through clearly with the atmospheric noise, though they could have played a greater part in the directionality and imaging of certain scenes. Otherwise, the din of people bustling in the streets of Shanghai, or the exclusive areas frequented by the rich make the scenes fairly immersive, which certainly adds to their distinction.
This is a mix that's not asked to work too hard, but certain elements give it a chance to shine, resulting in a overall pleasant sounding mix, even if the film mostly takes the quieter route.
'Dangerous Liaisons' could easily be labeled as a film that values style over substance, but it does have the benefit of being adapted from a story that has a pretty good track record of entertaining audiences. Still, this update, for all its sumptuous beauty and the interest its locale generates, falls flat in terms of developing characters who are capable of eliciting a powerful response from each other or the viewer. Simply put, in a story about seduction, there just isn't any heat between these characters. Moreover, as significant as the setting is to the look of the film, it adds precious little depth to such a familiar tale. Still, the image and sound are quite nice, and the extras, while not extravagant, are acceptable, making this title worth a look.