Synopsis: 1930s Shanghai: the glamorous, tumultuous “Paris Of The East” whose salons, streets and bedrooms frame this Chinese adaptation of the French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” – into a lush new vision of Dangerous Liaisons.
Aging socialite Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung) still finds herself circling ex-boyfriend Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-kun). Even after years of separation, their attraction – and appetites – smolder just beneath the surface. Mo, the rich and charming widow with a taste for indulgence and sensuous pleasures, still has eyes for famous womanizer Xie, who secretly burns with love for her. And yet, in his luxurious life, Xie’s new interest lies in chaste humanitarian Du Fenyu (Ziyi Zhang), who has captured his attention and earned his desire for conquest. Mo lures Xie into a treacherous, dangerous game of hearts: win, bed, and leave Du, proving his mettle as a rogue and impossible catch. But can Xie take the honor of such a woman, without losing his own heart, as well? As war looms in Shanghai, can Xie win Mo’s seductive game? Can he choose between these two women? Where will such a triangle lead them all? In matters of the heart, and in this city, there may be no difference between love and war.
eyelights: the sumptuous production. the beautiful score.
eyesores: its lack of edge.
‘Wi-heom-han gyan-gye’ is a 2012 Chinese film based on the novel ‘Les Liaisons dangereuses’ by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. As a die-hard fan of the superb 1988 Stephen Frears production, I’m always interested to see other adaptations of this same source material – I’m curious to compare but also to see if it was the material or the adaptation that made it so powerful. Naturally, when I saw that this version, I just had to grab it.
The fact that the cover suggested some sexiness had nothing to do with it. And by “nothing”, I mean “something”.
The story is transposed from 18th century France to 1931 Shanghai, which had been called by some the “Paris of the Orient”. It wasn’t clear to me if this is a reference to the Shanghai French Concession, which existed from 1849 to 1946, or if this largely due to the lifestyle there; if it was established I didn’t pick up on it. In watching the movie, I got the impression that it was largely due to the nightlife and wealth, which transformed Shanghai into an impressive city of lights.
I really enjoyed the setting from a thematic and visual perspective; it was awe-inspiring, resplendent (although I suspect that it was greatly enhanced by CGI), and totally in keeping with the original. However, for all the wealth on display, one thing that was sorely missing was the impression that the main characters’ social status weighed heavily on them, informing their every decision and action. It made their wealth seem superficial from a plot perspective.
In the 1988 version, the characters’ wealth was more than just about glamourous eye candy. Sure, it was quite impressive to behold (as one can imagine, given the French architecture and the fashion that the French aristocracy indulged in at the time), but there was more to it: in Stephen Frear’s cinematic rendition of 18th century France, being rich afforded one status, but this status was tenuous and needed to be defended at all costs. To lose one’s place in the social hierarchy was a mortal disgrace, adding weight to each subtle maneuver.
In ‘Wi-heom-han gyan-gye’, there is none of that: Mo Jieyu and Xie Yifan, its counterparts to the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, aren’t anywhere nearly as deliberate in their actions and aren’t as ruthless either. It is established that they can think relatively fast on their feet but their every move isn’t as premeditated, callous or shrewd. Watching them in action is hardly as jaw-dropping or impressive as it could be, and was with ‘Dangerous Liaisons’.
In this version of the tale, Mo Jieyu is a business tycoon; she is one of the first women to break through in this male-dominated world. By virtue of this, she must be intelligent and strategic – not that this is self-evident. Meanwhile, Xie Yifan is established from the start as a womanizer, but he comes off as a bit of a fool here: unlike Valmont, he is not nearly a match for Mo Jieyu. The scales are tipped, further tripping up the picture; this will not be a duel of wits.
Meanwhile, Du Fenyu, this picture Madame de Tourvel, and the main victim of the piece, is a kind, sweet, but rather weak woman. Unlike Pfeiffer’s incarnation, who has strong beliefs and values but is calculatingly broken down by Valmont, Du Fenyu shows no inner fire or strength. She’s the heroine here, outlasting the others, but there’s nothing heroic or outstanding about her. The film makes of her a teacher, for which she is supposed to be revered, and that’s it.
So what are the stakes, really, if she’s nothing truly special? Why does Xie Yifan pick her and persist (aside for being manipulated into it by Mo Jieyu)? There’s no question of reputation, of competitiveness with Mo Jieyu, of pride, …etc. What is the pull? Why is he so taken with her? Further to that, where is the passion or even the acts of seduction? For an experienced philanderer, he seems pretty clueless, actually; he seems to have no method whatsoever.
But then, nothing seems to have any meaning in ‘Wi-heom-han gyan-gye’.
Even the whole drama surrounding Beibei (this film’s version of Cécile de Volanges) was dispatched quickly, with nary a thought. For some reason it was enough that Xie Yifan had slept with her: she is never cajoled by Mo Jieyu, her guardian, into exploring her sexuality, and Xie Yifan never continues his so-called apprenticeship, corrupting her fully. Nope. Here he gets the job done and then she’s wiped from the picture until we hear that she’s mysteriously in the hospital.
These encounters are so meaningless that we get the impression that Xie Yifan only sleeps with them the one time, whereas Valmont would lick his chops to do it again. The passage of time is woefully ambiguous here. Does it take place over days? Week? Months? Who really knows. It doesn’t appear to have any purpose in the story and it isn’t at all considered by the filmmakers. Even Beibei’s trip to the hospital means little because it’s not established that she’s pregnant, thereby suggesting the passage of time.
The opening sequence, one that is reminiscent of the one between Valmont and De Tourvel when she finds him with a prostitute, only serves to establish Xie Yifan’s personality. When I saw it, I was intrigued. I thought that this was foreshadowing and that the picture would show us how everything unfolded to get to this key moment. Not so: it was a mere throwaway. Instead the turning point was the big shocker that he’s at Miss Mo’s place, not with a prostitute.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Even the ending in ‘Wi-heom-hangyan-gye’ is weaker than in Frear’s version.
Here it’s more like a soap opera, whereas the other one was a clash of the titans: Mo Jieyu simply hires someone to murder Xie Yifan and that’s that. There’s no self-defense or counterattack; he claims that he’ll destroy her but he never even comes close. And to make even more melodramatic: he goes to die in Du Fenyu’s arms! Naturally, this makes it worse for her since she doesn’t get to detach herself emotionally from him now: her compassion overrides her sense of violation.
Oh the humanity!
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
At least the filmmakers injected a small amount of depth by showing some social unrest, in the unhappiness some characters express with the Japanese being there, and bits of class struggle stuff, of rich versus poor. But there isn’t enough of it to make up for the shallowness of the rest of the material. And, quite frankly, the socio-political stuff is never really explored in any serious way – it’s mostly fringe stuff, on the sidelines of the main story.
Truth be told, I got the feeling that the story was processed through a socialist prism more than it needed to be (You know: workers unite, the educator is the hero, rich people are evil, …etc.). This may perhaps be contextually accurate, but I don’t have the perspective to understand the nuances of the pieces, so it felt out of place, under-cooked. On the flip-side, I understood the social context of the French setting far more. Here I’m surely missing something.
On the whole, ‘Wi-heom-han gyan-gye’ is a pretty motion picture (the music, in particular, is gorgeous, reminiscent of ‘The Piano‘, ‘Remains of the Day’, with light flourishes of the likes found in ‘Sirens‘), but it lacks passion and substance. It’s in no way a terrible film, but what could have been griping feels watered down, more ‘Valmont‘ than ‘Dangerous Liaisons’. It’s a darned shame, too, because I would have loved to see a Chinese version that was equally intense and sexy.
Date of viewing: August 24, 2014