Classics never go out of style. You can take any one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies and set it, say, in the Bronx Zoo with talking animals and still preserve more than the lion’s share (pun intended) of the dignity, drama, and pathos that the Bard intended so long as it’s done right. You’d have to cast the right zebra to play Juliet, and you’d be a fool to settle for the most magnificent tiger for the part of Romeo. It’d definitely have to be lit well, and you’d better not be too stingy with the checkbook when it comes to bringing all of it to life. No doubt – if your heart and the animals are in the right place – you’ll introduce a whole new generation to one splendid work of sheer genius, all on a reasonable budget, and earn kudos from the critics.
(NOTE: The following review may contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and character. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Those already familiar with this story need not worry as all of the major bullet points remain fully intact. Suffice it to say that the setting has been changed to Shanghai, 1931. Told against the backdrop of the impending Japanese invasion of China (though without all that much political ballyhoo or rhetoric), this DANGEROUS LIAISONS explores the devilish machinations of the socialite Mo Jieyu (played by the lovely Cecilia Cheung) and the dashing bachelor Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-kun at his sultry best). Vying for his last chance at her heart, Xie makes a wager that should he successfully seduce his distant cousin – the lovely and chaste Du Fenyu (Ziyi Zhang) – Miss Mo must fully surrender to him. Should he err and, instead, find love? Then Miss Mo stands to gain a sizable share of Yifan’s property.
Those of you in the know realize LIAISONS has been done before (there have been no less than three significant productions of it in the last thirty years). Sadly, there isn’t all that much that differentiates this version from the others except for the fact that this one was produced in China, a country rumored to maintain some of the most stringent content requirements in all the world. For much of these theatrical affairs, you certainly wouldn’t know it, though the most aggressive scene – Yifan’s near sexual assault of Mo once she outright rejects his advances despite having bested her in their bet – is relatively pale by comparison to how other countries would probably have handled the scene.
What LIAISONS does have to distinguish itself, however, is a trio of terrific talent in the primary roles. Jang Dong-kun embodies Yifan with an almost muscular sexiness, taking great delight in merely grazing the palms of ladies he considers his ‘lessers.’ When required, Cheung practically ignites the screen as she smolders her way (and her wiles) across any male suitor she chooses. Zhang – who has been noticeably absent from the screen despite her established international appeal – brings unimaginable depth to Du Fenyu, a character that in my opinion was largely a two dimensional creation (either she’s cold or she’s very very hot) in other filmed adaptations. Any combination of ‘two out of the three of them’ together elevate the story well enough beyond the good looks and dynamic settings chosen for the film; individually, their moments don’t work as well, and, when they’re paired with others for screen time, one could even make an argument that the film slows down noticeably. Thankfully, that isn’t all that often because, otherwise, this picture could’ve gone another direction.
Gone – or, at least, lessened – are the sexual conquests of the ever sparring pretenders. Instead, this LIAISONS has dished up a visual feast for the eyes – one cultured from a beast fed a diet of pure steroids – as every frame is lovingly saturated with impressive colors, sumptuous hues, and erotic lighting. Director Hur Jinho has spared no expense in bringing this lavish, handsome interpretation to the screen – but he may’ve spared more skin than necessary (or that Hollywood and audiences beyond China would’ve liked) in order to get this version past his country’s censors.
DANGEROUS LIAISONS is produced by Easternlight Films and Zonbo Media. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA. As for the technical specifications, everything looks stunning consistently throughout the presentation (there are a handful of CGI effects that might appear obvious to the trained eye, but they’re fleeting); the audio levels are terrific throughout. As for the special features, there are a few, including a fifteen minute ‘making of’ short as well as three behind-the-scene minis focusing on each of the principle characters/actors. It’s a solid collection – all a bit short – but much appreciated. For the sake of clarity, this is a Mandarin-spoken language motion picture with English subtitles.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. While it may not go down in history as the best adaptation of the famed French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it certainly should earn marks for being one of the best looking. So very much of it looks stunning on the silver screen, and DANGEROUS LIAISONS utilizes three exceptional talents in performances that deserve recognition. Cheung and Zhang have always been stunning to look at, and Jang Dong-kun should be no sore spot for the ladies. Excellent period detail and sparkling cinematography fill out the picture, though the film does grind to a halt when not truly focused on the main characters and the illicit passions.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with an advance DVD screener of DANGEROUS LIAISONS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more