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TIFF Review: Dangerous Liaisons

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Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Dangerous Liaisons (or Les Liaisons dangereuses in French) has seen at least two successful adaptations — one of which was a play by Christopher Hampton and the other was a Hollywood drama film directed by Stephen Frears and released in 1988. This year, we have another cinematic adaption to add to the list — a Chinese film directed by Hur Jin-ho and starring Jang Dong-gun, Zhang Ziyi, and Cecilia Cheung. It is definitely a more original take on the story — being set in the 1930s Shanghai as opposed to the 18th-century Paris — and it has enough style and sex appeal to keep you watching, but unfortunately it is not quite as riveting as its 1988 Oscar-nominated counterpart or the novel itself.

Once again, the story follows two rich rivals and ex-lovers, renamed as Zie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) and Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung), who use sex as a weapon to hurt each other and everyone around them. At the beginning of the film, Yifan makes a wager with Jieyu, betting that he would be able to seduce the virtuous and sexually abstinent widow Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), offerings some of his property as a prize in case he fails. Jieyu accepts the wager and offers to be become his “lover” if he succeeds. As Yifan begins his endeavour to conquer Fenyu, who rejects him at every turn, he slowly, but surely begins to fall in love with her. Jieyu quickly picks up on that and then uses it to tear his life apart.

Kudos should go to Dong-gun for imbuing the amoral playboy Yifan with just enough subtlety to suggest that there is something more under the surface. Zhang Ziyi is also very convincing as the emotionally fragile, yet stubborn Fenyu who hides her world-weariness and intelligence underneath her innocence and seeming aversion to sex.

Kudos should also go to the director and cinematographer for making every scene vibrate with sexuality without actually showing any nudity or on-screen sex. The use of sex as a tool to attain goals is one of the central themes of the novel, so it was important for the film to show that sex can be used to manipulate people in all possible situations, not just in the bedroom. The filmmakers show this through the use of warm colours, soft focus, and intimate close-ups of body parts like eyes, lips, and hands. There are no cheap tricks here — just good filmmaking.

Yet in spite of the slickness of the production, the film is still not quite as impressive as it should be. The primary reason for that is that it feels like a romantic comedy as opposed to an exploration of revenge, seduction, and decadence. For example, Yifan and Jieyu often come off as fun and cool instead of the depraved and bitter rivals that they are. In fact, the film spends a great deal of time setting up Yifan as this smooth playboy who can seduce any woman without any consequences and that the only thing he lacks is true love. He soon of course finds love in the morally “right” Fenyu whom he initially only saw as the new target of his sexual exploits. After that, he begins to transform from a playboy into a respectable human being — the main aspect of every romantic comedy.

The movie truly reveals Yifan and Jieyu as these bitter rivals only right at the end — when the consequences of their reckless actions finally catch up with them. But by then, there is not enough time to make their immorality truly sink in since most of the screen time is wasted on Yifan’s humorous attempts to seduce Fenyu and his supposed transformation.

This is not to say that the movie stinks — because it is actually very entertaining. The problem is that the movie is simply not poignant enough to matter. Yan Geling’s screenplay may have enough humour and character moments to make things very watchable, but it is not a work of art — just a decent screenplay.

This movie is good enough to waste two hours on, but those looking for something more should steer clear. The film will be released in theatres in China on September 27. North America does not have a release date yet.

Grade: C+

By: Taras Trofimov