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An adaptation of the two hundred year old French novel of the same name, director Jin-ho Hur's Dangerous Liaisons remains fairly faithful to the book, with the noticeable exception of landing the story in 1930s China.
In a world where power is as metaphysical as it is monetary, the sensual and conniving Miss Mo (Cecilia Cheung) enlists the allure of notorious playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) to help her toy with the relationships of unsuspecting acquaintances. When the cruel pair makes a bet that Yifan has no hope of seducing the prim and proper Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi)- a wager neither party has even considered losing- matters begin to spiral out of control as young lovers Beibei and Dai are thrown into the mix and the human element rears its ugly head.
The film looks fantastic. The overall camera-work is inspired and dynamic, while the interior cinematography is tinged with a golden hue that gives each scene a unique and stunning richness. Exterior shots are almost Snyder-esque, making modest use of computer-generated imagery to recreate post-WW1 Shanghai in all its splendour.
But aesthetic appeal aside, the strength of this film rests on its characters. Here the audience is presented with a couple of individuals who have achieved great success in their own lives by blocking out their natural human states and manipulating 'weaker-minded' counterparts for their own amusement. As a result, the film accommodates a lot of intrigue when these raw emotions inevitably boil over and consume them.
Unfortunately, Hur's ambition in attempting to weave a multitude of arcs together during the third act gets the better of him, as a need to neatly wrap up the holistic plot overwhelms the emotional investment placed in each solitary character. As the closing credits roll, it becomes apparent that Dangerous Liaisons lacked the urgency and genuine thrill demanded, or at least permitted, by the subject matter.
It is bittersweet, then, to assert that the film stumbles at the final hurdle when everything leading up to that point is actually quite fascinating. No character is omitted from the story for any extended time, motifs in the form of letters, mirrors and closed doors intelligently hint at the exclusive, secluded world these people live in and the epilogue is rare in that it is both cathartic and memorable in the way that many others are not.
At its core, Dangerous Liaisons is an atypical and worthwhile tragic love story; Shakespearean in enterprise despite lacking in execution.
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