Along with James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, which has yet to yield a poor adaptation, Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses has proven a uniquely pliant novel, capable of translating into widely varied periods and cultures without losing its essence. From the faithful (Valmont, Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons) to the frivolous (Cruel Intentions, Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses), de Laclos' vicious tale of sex, love, and betrayal has a forbidden air that seems natural for a medium so firmly rooted in sin. Set near the end of the Chosun dynasty in late-19th-century Korea, E J-yong's Untold Scandal brings the book to its most far-flung locale to date, but little is lost when de Laclos' story is melded to the strict social mores that govern the characters' lives.
Sumptuously photographed in bright primary colors, with equally immaculate period clothing and design, Untold Scandal lacks some of the emotional and thematic depth of previous adaptations, but it has the refreshing candor and explicitness that marks the current wave of Korean cinema. Contrasting public fortitude with private salaciousness, matronly temptress Lee Mi-Suk is an unapologetic pleasure-seeker, but she thrives more on sexual conquest than the act itself. A partner in crime, Lee's handsome cousin Bae Yong-jun beds women for sport, so Lee dispatches him to deflower an innocent 16-year-old girl (Lee So-Yeon), but Bae's attention drifts towards a greater challenge. When he learns of a Catholic widow (Jeon Do-Yeon) who's determined to remain chaste until she dies, Bae makes an aggressive plea for her affections. Should he succeed, his cousin Lee has offered herself to him as a reward.
Of course, Bae winds up falling in love with his prey, setting off a tragic sequence of events that registers with disappointing formal aloofness in the climax and unearned sentimentality in the coda. Until then, Untold Scandal masters the crisp, fork-tongued humor that makes the novel so irresistibly naughty, though it's helped along by two conspirators who go about their dirty work with dry wit and crooked, feline smiles. Though the film smoothly integrates a Western text and an Eastern milieu, the transitions deepen when tied to the powerful efforts of Roman Catholic missionaries to alter the cultural landscape. E J-yong stops short of criticizing this religious imperialism, but the Catholic codes serve to stiffen the widow's resolve and raise the stakes in kind.