Film Review: Dangerous Liaisons

Sexual intrigue brings heartbreak in an adaptation of the famous French novel, updated to 1930s Shanghai.

Plush and seductive, Dangerous Liaisons updates the French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos—filmed many times before—to 1930s Shanghai. For the most part, director Jin-ho Hur and screenwriter Yan Geling stay true to the plot, a roundelay of sexual couplings and betrayals masterminded by a pair of self-involved aristocrats. The results don't break much new ground but will satisfy fans of glossy soap operas.

Xie "Fan" Yifan (Korean star Jang Dong-gun), a wealthy but cold-blooded playboy, lusts after socialite Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung). Just dumped by a tycoon for 16-year-old virgin Beibei (Candy Wang), Mo is out for revenge, but Fan isn't interested at first in deflowering another schoolgirl.

Instead, Fan sets his sights on Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), a widowed cousin who fled fighting in Manchuria for Shanghai. He bets Mo that he can seduce Fenyu, and Beibei as well, if Mo will agree to become his lover.

Beibei has fallen in love with Dai (Shawn Dou), a college student who is giving her drawing lessons. Mo, who has offered to become Beibei's chaperone, tries to manipulate the two into an affair. Meanwhile, Fan has trouble winning over the suspicious Fenyu. The characters will soon be coping with several reversals.

The basic plot has been used so many times that it looks a little threadbare now, especially since Jin-ho Hur treats it with a bit too much reverence. The film's pacing is extremely slow, with much attention lavished on clothes, furniture, cars and other period details. The careful lighting makes everyone look like they're in a Chanel ad, and a preponderance of close-ups has a claustrophobic effect.

The repressed, mousy Du Fenyu is not the best fit for Zhang Ziyi, an actress who simply looks too intelligent to play a naive widow. With pale make-up and dowdy clothes, she fails to make much of an impact as a heartbreaker, especially since she spends the first hour of the film frowning. Jang Dong-gun looks dapper enough as Fan, but his performance here is limited. For dissipation, for example, the best he can do is lean against a door or tilt his head.

Only Cecilia Cheung, a strong presence in Hong Kong films for the past decade, makes much of an impression. Her Mo Jieyu is properly cold and calculating, but she's also the kind of knockout who can wrap men around her finger. And Cheung finds a way to let us see the passion under her glittering shell.

The Shanghai setting doesn't add much to the story, but it allows the filmmakers to get away with more politics than a contemporary story would. Chinese nationalism, student rebels and the refugee problem all make cameo appearances.

But on the whole, this version of Dangerous Liaisons is discouragingly old-fashioned. Characters sigh, the camera swoons, and everything has an airbrushed look. Viewers expecting a little more bite will be disappointed.