An adaptation of something like Dangerous Liaisons–where the ending isn’t just assured, but probably familiar to the viewer–requires good actors and an interesting approach. This version of Liaisons has both.
It takes place in 1931 China; the Japanese have started attacking and there’s unrest. Director Hur has a great sense of style for this era and setting, more than he has good composition, for example. When Liaisons becomes a manor film, Hur is just as capable as when he’s in CG-enhanced Shanghai.
The political unrest is just background action. The film’s concentration on the main events are all the melodrama and soap opera. It’s kind of unfortunate. As the film neared its inevitable conclusion, I was sad there was no attempt to break free a little with the supporting cast in particular.
As the scheming leads, Jang Dong-gun and Cecilia Cheung are great. Between the setting–it feels like an old Hollywood picture, just in color and grandiose–the performances and Jo Sung-woo’s playful score, it’s impossible to dislike them. Especially as Zhang Ziyi’s innocent victim lacks personality. She gets sympathy because it’s Dangerous Liaisons, but she doesn’t get particularly good until the third act.
The film feels a little long, with the technical competences and the acting keeping up the quality if not the interest. Most of the setting-specific adjustments to the source material happen in the first half. Everything else is predictable.
Liaisons is finely produced and acted, but there’s no spark.