Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review - Dangerous Liaisons (2012)

March 28, 2013

Dangerous Liaisons – China, 2012

This is the third film adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses that I have seen, and it is the second best of the three, sandwiched of course between 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons and 1999’s discomforting Cruel Intentions. The former I enjoyed a great deal; the latter left me feeling extremely cold. Laclos’s novel is often seen as a critique of the decadence that existed prior to the French Revolution, and its depiction of high-class aristocrats destroying the lives of innocent people likely both shocked and mesmerized its readers. Sadly, this latest adaptation is not likely to do either.

The film is directed by South Korean Jin-ho Hur, who also made 2007’s emotionally moving film Happiness. Hur’s adaptation is set in Shanghai in 1931, and it is quite easy to see the parallels that screenwriter Geling Yan is drawing between pre-revolution France and pre-World War II China. While France’s aristocracy lived the good life at the expense of average French citizens, Shanghai’s elite, at least according to the film, carried on as if the country’s ongoing civil war and the imminent threat of Japanese aggression gave them no reason to be concerned.  In the film, they continue living in opulence and worrying about such trivial matters as marrying rich and ensuring the chastity of one’s future bride. Let the head shaking commence.

The film tells essentially the same story as the other adaptations of Laclos’s novel. Here the two villains are Mo Jieyu (adequately played by Cecilia Cheng) and Xie Yifan (South Korean actor Dong-gun Jang), and like the other incarnations, the male in this pairing conspires to woo and dump a young, unsuspecting woman. In this version, the intended victim is a widow named Du Fenyu (Ziyi Zhang), and everything about her, from her clothing to the placement of her arms, screams traditionalism. It is for this reason that Xie sets his sights on her, and he would consider her downfall an impressive personal achievement. His less-than-noble intentions morph into a wager between Mo and Xie that will eventually be the ruin of all of them. The film also features a younger woman whose mother is trying to keep her away from men until she’s married, and the young man (here an artist) who pines for her. Then there’s the film’s finale, in which violence and betrayal rear their ugly head to put a final exclamation mark on what is supposed to be a rather explosive and tragic tale.

The film misfires badly. Its first misstep is the casting of Dong-gun Jang as Xie. Jang is a talented actor, yet in this film, he is woefully miscast. While Jang is fully capable of playing a man with few moral scruples, nothing he does in this film is likely to convince the audience that Xie would win the heart of a woman like Du. When John Malkovich played this role, his character was able to feign vulnerability and lure his target closer. It felt authentic. However, Dong plays his moments with Du too aggressively. In fact, the film seems to be operating under the assumption that all a man has to do is act impulsively and be rude for a woman to fall in love with him. Also, throughout the film, Dong seems incapable of playing warm and fuzzy, and as a result, key moments when he is supposed to be confessing his true feelings only reinforce the notion that his character is nothing but a pathological liar.

The film also makes the inexcusable mistake of misusing Ziyi Zhang. Here appearing in a supporting role, Zhang is given very little to do other than look as if she is doing all she can to suppress her passion. This would be understandable if she were inexperienced in love (she isn’t) or if her pursuer were actually doing something to earn her longing (he isn’t). However, it is hard to imagine what she could like about someone whose attempts at wooing her involve grabbing a book that belonged to her deceased husband, throwing it into a swimming pool, and proclaiming that she must stop living in the past. Has he never heard of flowers and chocolate? Add to this the film’s overbearing soundtrack and its overreliance on tried-and-true cinematic devices to evoke the audience’s sympathy, such as using slow motion to extend supposedly heartbreaking scenes, and what we’re left with is a film that is simultaneously trying too hard and not putting in enough of an effort.

We’ve seen all of this before, and in truth, we’ve seen it done better. Therefore, I suggest a golden rule for films such as these. Simply put, when someone is considering remaking a film, let’s apply this simply standard before giving the remake the green light: If it is not going to be an improvement on the original (and it is not difficult to tell from a script that it won’t be), don’t make it. Just say, “I’ll pass.” Better yet. Hire the writer to produce something original, something that has authentic characters, believable dialogue, and an uncompromised ending. Believe me, the film you come up with is almost guaranteed to be better than this version of Dangerous Liaisons. (on Blu-ray in Region A)

2 and a half stars

*Dangerous Liaisons is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.

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