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Using its setting effectively to enrich its story and leaving you on a thought-provoking conclusion, this scandal-laden soap opera stands out from the rest
Some characters are just so vile, so devious, so dumb or so benevolent that the notion of them being real people is simply unthinkable. But you want these people in a movie, often desperately, because the very combination of their characteristics is just the right recipe for a drama fraught with lost love, lies, betrayals and startling revelations. Like scandal-laden Taiwanese soap operas, or magic tricks, there's nothing good that comes out of showing you the whole thing before you watch them unfold. The less said about Dangerous Liaisons, the better. I hope you experience its ideas fresh and I hope the plot surprises work for you as much as they did for me.
Cecilia Chung plays Mo Jieyu, a jealous and cunning ex-lover locked in horns with former partner and millionaire playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Don- gun). They make a bet that the one-track minded Yifan couldn't resist: If he beds new-in-town widow Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), Jieyu will give herself to Yifan again, but if he fails to achieve the goal, he must give her a piece of land. Talking about Dangerous Liaisons then leads to a more complex problem because this premise that it's being sold on barely scratches the surface of what the whole movie has to offer. Yes, the movie concerns these three characters, but in many ways, they are just catalysts, with most of the major events unravelling around their actions.
Telling you how it all exactly plays out and why would definitely sell you on this movie, but it's hard to do so without spoiling the show, so I'll stick to the other noteworthy bit: the setting. Director Hur Jin- ho's 1930s Shanghai is at once glittering and ramshackle, with opulent, brightly lit buildings and polished cars flanking timeworn shophouses and beat up trishaws. The rich hold firm their social mores while the poor prove less restrained, yet they co-exist in undisturbed harmony. It's one of the most carefully curated, detailed and beautiful looks at a lost world, delivering a reality that feels consistently believable even though it's only vaguely familiar.
If that sounds like the setting plays a big part in the movie, that's because it does. So much of the plot is predicated on the traditional customs of the period that you suspect the movie would have been less smart and less tense had it been staged at another city in another era. Keeping a couple apart by telling the audience that a relationship isn't valid if the people involved don't share similar social statuses or breaking a marriage because the virgin that a rich and famous man is going to marry suddenly becomes a non-virgin isn't new, to be sure, but it's interesting to see a movie hit on these concepts to propel its story into richer complexity.
Into this complexity is where you find the characters switching roles. This is the sort of movie that spends enough time in the headspace of its character for you to claim that you can fully interpret what each character is thinking by the time Dangerous Liaisons nears the end. And you could have easily imagined the movie simmering down to a more predictable conclusion of having each of its characters get his or her reward or comeuppance. Which the characters do. But there's a greater note to that end, and I find myself forced to question whether the good person is actually the bad person, and whether the bad person is actually the good person. Or whether there's always a good side to a bad person.
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