Starring Zhang Ziyi, Jang Dong-gun, and Cecilia Cheung. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Rated PG.
Of numerous adaptations of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, the best known is Stephen Frears’s 1988 movie, itself based on Christopher Hampton’s play.
None has been more ambitiously staged and shot—not to mention aggressively edited—than this almost two-hour pan-Asian take, directed by South Korea’s Hur Jin-ho and set in 1931 Shanghai. Here, Jazz Age aristocrats sub for the let-them-eat-cake courtiers of 18th-century France. And the players have been skewed down in age and up in beauty, although not quite in the manner of Cruel Intentions, in which Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar gave the boudoir drama a Gossip Girl gloss.
The best-known player is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Zhang Ziyi, in Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1988 role, as upstanding Madame Du. This good citizen has the misfortune to come between two amoral reprobates who exploit other people’s emotions for their own amusement. Hong Kong’s slinky Cecilia Cheung is Miss Mo (Glenn Close in our touchstone version), who bets her rakish rival and former lover, Xie Yifan (South Korean Jang Dong-gun, who easily outhandsomes John Malkovich), that he can’t do Madame Du.
The problem, as so often happens to people with impeccably colour-matched period wardrobes, is that their subconscious agendas keep getting in the way of cold-eyed plans. Mo and Fan each want to win, but that could be at the expense of their actual feelings for each other, as well as the extra people in their orbit. The ending, presented as a precursor to a better, more egalitarian China, is not as dire, nor as deep, as any previous templates. The movie is so gorgeous, though, that it hardly matters.
Watch the trailer for Dangerous Liaisons.