Dangerous Liaisons (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Xiangyang Chen

Zhang Ziyi as Du Fenyu and Jang Dong-gun as Xie Yifan

Zhang Ziyi as Du Fenyu and Jang Dong-gun as Xie Yifan

Produced by Weiming Chen; written by Choderlos de Laclos (novel) and Yan Geling (screenplay); directed by Jin-ho Hur; cinematography by Byung-seo Kim; production design by; edited by Na-young Nam; costume design by Miggy Cheng; starring Jang Dong-gun, Zhang Ziyi, Cecilia Chung, Shawn Dou, Lisa Lu. Color, 105 min., Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles. A Well Go Entertainment release, www.wellgousa.com.

Seduction, desire, and manipulation are the behaviors and emotions animating the most recent screen adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses—this time from China. The prey–predator dichotomy central to the eighteenth-century French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos also defines the roles of the men and women populating this version—titled Dangerous Liaisons and set during the Shanghai War of 1932 (also known in Chinese history as the January 28 Incident). Representing an intricate network of relationships deemed dangerous to the well-being of society, the institution of marriage, the proper definition of femininity, and, perhaps, appropriate conduct during wartime, the adaptation directed by Jin-ho Hur offers an opulent vision of human desire, deception, and corrupt contention for sexual power. The setting is crucial: just as the Westernized, decadent upper-class Chinese characters attempt to consolidate their power in the bedroom—toying with the lives of a younger, more sincere generation representing the promise of China’s independent, communist future—so, it is implied, the Japanese, though never an overt presence in the film, attempt to consolidate their colonial power and undermine Chinese national identity and autonomy.

Upon its publication, Les Liaisons dangereuses caused a scandalous uproar for its depictions of moral and sexual depravity and, therefore, was banned. The new Chinese adaptation, having omitted several significant scenes, provides a diluted version of the wicked cruelty and moral decadence French aristocrats embraced before the revolution. In merging the personal and the political—as it involves sexuality and female desire—and in exploring a particular strain of political thought through its colonial Shanghai setting, Jin-ho’s Dangerous Liaisons claims much to its credit, even with some of the compromises it has made. That the pitiful Mo Jieyu (Cecelia Chung) succumbs to heartbroken wailing after she has reached the pinnacle of sexual revenge and manipulation, for instance, severely diminishes the extremity of sexual and spiritual decadence Laclos represents. Such choices invite intriguing questions about the process of adaptation in this particular cultural context: Is the film extolling sexual manipulation and the desire for control depicted in the novel or is it critiquing such excess when played out in wartime China subject to foreign encroachment? Is sexuality discreet or separable from concerns of a materialist, capitalist China? And what role does sexuality play in a communist China? Is it, alone, even a subject of interest?

Published seven years before the French Revolution, the novel allegorically exposes the moral bankruptcy that led to violent class conflict and revolution. Reviled upon initial publication, the novel has since accrued the status of a classic in its nuanced depiction of the French aristocracy’s sexual debauchery and moral decadence. Frequently adapted to stage and screen—in Hollywood as Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Cruel Intentions (1999), to name two of the most popular versions—Les Liaisons dangereuses clearly has contemporary and cross-cultural resonance. The sleek Chinese version boasts an impressive international cast from Korea, China, Hong Kong, and the United States in an enterprise, which, along with other recent Chinese films, seeks to gain a competitive international profile.

The film is set in a very Westernized Shanghai, complete with luxurious decor, elaborate props, and decorous, if not morally upstanding, behavior on the part of its characters—all exuding colonial exoticism, at least from the contrasting perspective of the lower classes, whose children are shown several times begging for food in the streets. The flair with which privileged women spread gossip—their cool calculation, precise etiquette, and judicious, if not even-handed tact when it’s called for—evokes similar images of urbane Shanghai socialites represented in other notable Chinese films, including Junli Zheng’s Crows and Sparrows (1949) and Zhang Yimou’s much later Shanghai Triad (1995). The extremity of sexual play, of course, requires a femme fatale: here, the beautiful, dangerous Mo, who uses her sexuality to control and manipulate men with perfect aplomb. And it also requires a playboy—Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun)—whose meticulous grooming and flippancy of manner in countless sexual escapades are his chief charms. The vulnerability, however, that slips through in the almost imperceptible twitch of his facial muscle straining to hold back a tear, belies the brittle nature of the playboy. Similarly, Mo, though merciless in revenge and flawless in her tactics, ultimately breaks down in a spasm of sobs over the eventual death of Xie, her compatriot in sexual crimes against other innocents and the man she loves—although she has tried very hard never to let on (the film audience, of course, knows differently).

Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi) is the demure widow of an underground Communist Party member, whose chastity becomes the pawn in a game of sexual manipulation: Mo offers herself to Xie as his sexual prize if he can manage to get Fenyu into bed and then drop her and if he can deflower the virginal Beibei (Candy Wang) before her marriage to a much older, wealthy aristocrat who demands her purity. Mo, as most women in love do, knows Xie better than he knows himself. She realizes he has fallen in love with Fenyu and jealously sets Beibei’s young boyfriend Dai (Shawn Dou), whom Beibei truly loves, against Xie after his successful deflowering of the virgin. In the film’s masterful attempt to merge the political with the personal, Dai shoots Xie in the street as he desperately runs toward Fenyu’s apartment to ask her forgiveness after having coldheartedly abandoned her at Mo’s insistence. Dying outside Fenyu’s apartment door, Xie confesses his love as she listens from inside, silently but intently. Having contemplated suicide upon Xie’s rejection, Fenyu’s heartbreak and the genuine love and grief she expresses in holding him in her arms as he dies, presents the film’s strongest critique of sexual wickedness, for it is she who represents hope for a Chinese nationalist future. In the film’s final image, she teaches peasant children in an open-air schoolroom, remembering, for a moment, the sincerity of Xie’s declaration of love. Moral and ideological good thus triumph in a narrative that skillfully fuses the personal with the political.

Beibei and Dai, both very young aspiring artists, also represent the country’s future promise that is nevertheless so vulnerable to the manipulation of the then present, decadent, Westernized characters who, allegorically, represent the hovering, though unseen, colonial forces. In presenting the opulence of the Westernized, wealthy Chinese, of which Beibei and Fenyu, themselves, are a part—despite their apparent rejection of aristocratic values—the film, at the same time, seems to endorse material acquisition for contemporary Chinese audiences at a time when the country is emerging as a major force in the global economy.

Beibei is hospitalized after her sexual liaison with Xie, which he and Mo brutally orchestrated, using Dai on the phone as a dupe to lure her into the arms of Xie. That Dai takes to the trigger in jealous pursuit of Xie, who had earlier won his trust, expresses the film’s moral undertone which, although detached and never heavyhanded in this skillful multiperspective narrative, does, nevertheless, dilute the unapologetic depravity depicted in the source material. This undertone is no more strongly expressed than in its juxtaposing Shanghai street protests against Japanese colonial forces with Xie’s attempt to conquer Fenyu as his prey—the chaste widow of a communist underground worker. Xie’s ambiguous and inexplicably sympathetic relation with Fenyu and her cause, along with his ultimate death, work fortuitously to recuperate Fenyu’s devotion to the revolutionary cause—a compromise that tempers the acerbic political critique for which the source novel is acclaimed. The treatment of sexual revenge and the larger stakes in the battle between the sexes, in this version, do not fully capture the cruel, wicked intentions of French aristocrats in the primary source.

The film's concern with sexuality, however—whether involving jealous contention, evil calculation, malicious manipulation, or spiteful retribution—is in keeping with a number of Chinese films produced since the late 1980s that are bent on debunking sexual suppression and on excavating erotic pleasure that extends beyond mere reproductive rights. Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1990) and Ju Dou (1991), for instance, represent incestuous relations, forbidden love, and erotic pleasure, signaling greater sexual freedom at a time when the country was in the process of adopting less stringent censorship rules and more relaxed policies of journalistic freedom. Unlike earlier films that represented prim and proper conjugal rights, reproductive necessity, and/or the elision of sexual consummation, the representation of sexual freedom in many films of the late 1980s and beyond has been read as a symptom of a weakening Chinese patriarchy—this in response to the country's allowing greater freedom of speech and the freedom to choose one's love, which stands in opposition to the prior practice of arranged marriage that had been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. In exposing the guile and strategic planning in the battle for sexual power, rather than voyeuristically staging desire and depicting raw sexuality in illicit or forbidden love, as so many Chinese films since the late 1980s do, Dangerous Liaisons, through its sumptuous mise-en-scène and aestheticism, actually heightens the sensual atmosphere.

The film's aesthetic opulence and the characters’ jaded sex play—driven by jealousy and the desire for money and power—works in interesting ways within the larger historical context of the Shanghai War, drawing attention to modes of female representation in Chinese film that arise from the merging of the personal with the political. This strain of interweaving the political with women's sensibility and sexuality—ranging from female images of naiveté, prim and proper chastity, and matronly grace, to those of snobbish garrulity and dangerous sexuality—is a particular concern of Dangerous Liaisons screenwriter Yan Geling, whose Xiuxiu: The Sent-down Girl (1998), most notably, is a study of the impact on women's feelings and sexuality of the well-known political movement that sent intellectuals to the countryside for reform and reeducation before the Cultural Revolution.

In his adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, Yan further explores the relationship between the personal and the political, or the personal in the political, by representing sexual revenge pushed to the utmost extreme in the context of the war—and with two lead women who move in opposite directions. Mo is left with nothing but tears of bitterness and loss when confronting the consequences of her actions in inadvertently plotting the destruction of Xie, her closest friend and the only man she most probably loves—though she never truly reveals it; Fenyu, as a character of conscience, transcends the depraved sexual intrigue within which she was a victim, confident that Xie did love her and looking forward to the future as she teaches children who will ensure China’s communist future. The film thus blends the sexual subject matter of its source with the specific historicity of wartime Shanghai, which, itself, potentially could have resulted in two different outcomes for the nation.

As backdrop, the war approximates the danger of corrupt sexual hedonism, which leads to destruction and devastation while forming a critical raison d'être for the men and women engaged in wanton sexual pursuits in such uncertain times. Intentionally or not, this duality reinforces the film's moral tone. Although love and war, as a pair of conceits, are treated in a light, humorous, or ironic manner, Dangerous Liaisons nevertheless suggests that the scheming in sexual battles is comparable to the strategies of war, with all the attendant urgency, escalation, and, of course, destruction that results. The relish of sexual victory pushes characters to pursue their goals all the more vigorously, as they play with and transgress boundaries, and as they fiercely violate others for the purpose of sheer personal triumph. In this sense, the film’s dual concern with frivolous sexual play and female sensibilities in wartime China could be seen to embody a different way of writing wartime history. The unbearable lightness ofDangerous Liaisons stands in contrast to previously ponderous historical representations and, like similar efforts in Chinese cinema, attempts to provide a more heterogeneous cultural expression, thus maneuvering more space for the freedom of various forms of artistic and political expression.

Xiangyang Chen is a film scholar with a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

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Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2