Choderlos de Laclos’ scandalous epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been a goose sliced every which way by the movies: as a Roger Vadim tease featuring a ripe young Jeanne Moreau (1959’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses); as a more traditional but lacerating period piece with John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and Michelle Pfeiffer (1988’s Dangerous Liaisons); and as a prep-school modernization for the younger set (1999’s Cruel Intentions). Its durability implies that the basics of de Laclos’ story—a deliciously seductive piece of sexual gamesmanship gone amiss—can be ported to any time and place without the dynamics being altered a bit; the only thing that changes is context. Set in 1930s Shanghai, Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation cleverly swaps the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But it’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.
The Valmont in this scenario is Jang Dong-gun, a callow playboy whose predatory conquests have given him a well-circulated reputation. As the film’s Merteuil, his counterpart in experience, is the beautiful Cecilia Cheung, who’s equally adept at getting what she wants, but has consistently refused Jang’s advances. At a charity ball, the two make an arrangement: If Jang succeeds in bedding, dumping, and ruining a chaste young widow, played by Zhang Ziyi, Cheung will finally give herself to him. What neither of them counts on is the widow’s effect on Jang and the devastation it causes to all parties involved, especially once Jang’s separate deflowering of a virginal bride-to-be (Candy Wang) leads to some blowback.
Hur invests the period setting with an eye-popping opulence that’s meant to highlight the elite decadence that came before the fall, but his Dangerous Liaisons isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. There’s little subtext to the film, but the text is pure soap opera, which the broad strokes of de Laclos’ story serves as well as any. The erotic calculations of Valmont and Merteuil have the evergreen pull of scandal, and the tragic unraveling of events is powerful in any setting. But with so many Les Liaisons Dangereuses adaptations on offer, it isn’t enough just to go through the paces.