Dangerous Liaisons (2012)
Director: Hur Jin-ho
Writers: Yan Geling, based off the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Starring: Jang Dong-Gun, Zhang Ziyi, Shawn Dou, and Cecilia Cheung

The Plot: Dangerous Liaisons is set in the aristocratic world of 1931, Shanghai. Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) is a womanizing businessman who seemingly has very little concern for anyone other than himself. He has a strange relationship with fellow socialite Mo Jieyu (Cecillia Cheung). Jieuyu has always turned down Yifan’s advances and it seems as if this has made her a forbidden fruit in Yifan’s eyes. Although Yifan has eyes for Jieuyu, currently his latest conquest is the very shy Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), a lovely young woman who has come into his life by way of his family. Jieyu senses an opportunity with this young girl and bets Yifan that he can’t seduce the young woman. If Yifan wins, Jieyu will sleep with him, but if Jieuyu wins then Yifan must give up a valuable piece of land. Will the lovely Fenyu give into Yifan’s charm, or will she continue to push him away?

The Review
When it comes to Chinese period pieces, the majority of titles have universally been set in a period before the 20th century. However, occasionally a film pops up on the radar that makes good use of recent history. Dangerous Liaisons shares a similar sensibility as Donnie Yen’s Legend of the Fist did, as the first thing that will grab audience’s attention about Hur Jin-ho’s 2012 update of Dangerous Liaisons is the very retro Western style of the film. Set in 1930s Shanghai, the film has a very retro-yet-modern feel to it. Western suits and fancy dresses are commonplace within this romantic thriller and it surely stands out as one of the biggest selling points within the film. Although Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons has been updated regularly (in the 1988 adaptation starring Glenn Close, as well as the 1999 teen hit Cruel Intentions), it forever has a bourgeois sensibility that requires an otherworldly atmosphere in order for the story to work. In this adaptation we are treated to the unfamiliar aristocratic world of Shanghai, and I’ll be darned if this aspect of the film isn’t interesting. Unfortunately, it is the other pieces of the movie that make it suffer.

Continuing on with my areas of praise, I do have to admit that the cast is quite solid in Dangerous Liaisons. Jang Dong-gun, who stars as Xie Yifan, is a truly interesting lead for this project. Standing out as a gigolo who calls for absolutely no sympathy from the audience, his charm comes from his debonaire style and charismatic demeanor. Although he may at first appear to have the morality of pondscum, he has a very James Bond-esque sense of style. Although audience likely won’t cry for him all that often, he manages to do the unthinkable and sweep viewers off their feet. The rest of the cast are also quite fitting for their roles. Zhang Zhiyi plays the naive young woman who catches Xie Yifan’s attention and becomes the center of our attention. She slips into this role in far better fashion than I would have expected from a woman that I am accustomed to seeing play strong and domineering women. Cecilia Cheung has probably the strongest female role in the movie, however, as she manages to ooze sex appeal in nearly everything she does. She brings a sense of danger and sensuality to the role that makes such a thanklessly ruthless character stand out. With very little actual sex on the screen, Cheung manages to create a character that releases pure unadulterated sexuality.

I’ve already mentioned it at this point, but the movie really does a really solid job of updating the story in order to fit the locale of 1930s Shanghai. There are some political associations that are proper for the time and the filmmakers do a good job of creating the proper atmosphere to accentuate this setting. Indeed, I can’t say that I feel Dangerous Liaisons perfectly captures the spirit and look of the real 1930s Shanghai, as I am blissfully unaware of Chinese fashion during the 1930s, but the glossy fashion within the movie is a sight to behold. Keeping true to the story though, this is a movie that isn’t afraid to get sensual. Although sexuality is not something that I would say China is particularly well known for in today’s marketplace, Dangerous Liaisons does occasionally light up the screen with some very appealing sensuality. The sex scenes and brief teases of nudity are sudden, but they are done in a way that easily gets the blood flowing.

The structure of the film is fairly conventional. The biggest break from expectations is the slight bits of humor that pop up every now and then during the story, but for the most part this is a very run-of-the-mill sexual thriller. The fact that we have seen this story told better elsewhere also doesn’t bode well for the film. When comparing this feature even to Cruel Intentions, it becomes obvious which film is the more entertaining one to watch. Whereas Cruel Intentions felt hip, edgy, and was paced very well, Dangerous Liaisons at times feels quite bloated and unnecessarily complicated. With far more characters than should be necessary to tell this story, the film starts to feel burdened by subplots and secondary characters. The meat and strengths of the film focus on four individuals, but as the story loses sight of this and focuses on the second tier of characters, it starts to meander and lose all sense of urgency. Running at nearly two hours in length, Dangerous Liaisons loses far too much steam after the first hour has run its course.

The Conclusion
At the end of the day, we’re talking about a beautifully designed period piece, with great performances, but with poor pacing and a bloated script. The movie is a toss up in this regard. The things that stick out deserve a great deal of praise, but this isn’t one that you’ll be rewatching over and over again. In the end, it earns a solid three out of five. It’s parts are generally quite better than the whole, but it has some very eye catching elements working for it.

You might also be interested in: