For anyone who has already seen the riveting 1988 version of Dangerous Liaisons directed by Stephen Frears and starring stalwarts like Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, and John Malkovich, you might be slightly sceptical of a remake of the same by South Korean director Hur Jin-Ho.
Based on the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the film narrates the story of several characters whose lives are ruined by love and the heartbreak that comes from betrayal.
Even if you know or guess how the story ends, this particular adaptation is still more than worth watching for its setting (1930s Shanghai), costumes, gorgeous cinematography, a strong ensemble cast, and above all, for a glimpse into the absurdly lavish lives of Chinese socialites just before the advent of communism.
The lovely Ziyi Zhang (from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) plays Du Fenyu the chaste and pure of heart widow who becomes the centre of a bet between jilted, conniving socialite Mo Jieyu (played ferociously by Cecilia Cheung), and the womanising playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-kun).
Mo has just been dumped by her lover, another rich tycoon, for a virginal schoolgirl, and she entices Xie Yifan (whom she calls just 'Fan') to deflower the girl as a test of his prowess. The handsome but fatally louche Fan agrees, however, he is distracted due to circumstance by Du Fenyu who is his distant cousin and is therefore staying at his mansion-like residence.
Captivated by her serene exterior and seeming indifference to him, Fan pursues Fenyu with every weapon in his arsenal, confusing her with love letters, overt sexual overtures, gentle teasing, and his own natural charm. As Mo teases him over his lost cause, the two wager that if Fan can get Fenyu into bed then Mo shall give herself to him.
Circumstances become increasingly complicated when Fan falls in love with Fenyu. He refuses to acknowledge his emotions, having never felt such a thing before, meanwhile, Mo continues to plot revenge on her former lover by arranging for Fan to sleep with his innocent schoolgirl fiancée.
Yes, the plot is complicated, but the fine acting carries us along. We are enthralled by the intractable treachery of Mo, who, even after Fan dumps Fenyu after having made her love him, cannot accept that he still loves this other woman.
There are a few nail biting scenes of betrayal that are grim and engrossing at the same time. Somehow, even though laughably extreme in principle, the act of betraying a loved one out of pique seems to make for extremely good cinema.
I would watch this version of Dangerous Liaisons for its elegant, restrained filmmaking that brings to life the abjectness that can accompany falling in love, the destructive power of jealousy, and the hunger for power that can eventually, if not somehow checked, metamorphose into pure bitterness.
If you ever believed that only the French could have thought up such an extreme concoction, think again when you see this Chinese adaptation. It seems, unfortunately, that appalling behaviour dogs humans everywhere, and yet we are not averse to watching it as entertainment.