One of the most striking features of Dangerous Liaisons, director Hur Jin-ho’s Chinese remake of the much-adapted French novel, is that the gilded chambers and opulent opera houses of 1930s Shanghai seem like immensely satisfying substitutions for the stuffy manor homes and countrysides of the original’s 18th-century France. We all remember that Stephen Frears, a reliable workman rather than any kind of visionary, unimaginatively replicated the milieu of his source text in order to lend his film an atmosphere of period prestige, which may account for why it remains to this day Hollywood’s definitive iteration of a story retold ad infinitum. Not that valiant attempts haven’t been made over the years to contemporize or otherwise reorient the particulars to more radical effect: Roger Kumble’s mildly iconic ‘90s romp Cruel Intentions transformed the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont into attractive step-siblings conspiring to dominate the innocents of their high school, which though silly was nevertheless decidedly fun. Hur’s angle, by contrast, is to observe the raunchy proceedings from a slightly amused distance, happy to simply sit back and soak in the melodrama and the ravishing environs that surround it.
The approach, all things considered, makes for a slender but largely entertaining bit of period theater; its closest analogue in terms of both style and tone, perhaps surprisingly, is Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, with which it shares an obvious obsession with gliding camerawork and regal decor. This is quite obviously a five-star production, and, though they are maybe superficial pleasures, the garish production design and costume work represent two of the film’s most appealing qualities—a fact of which Hur must have been acutely aware, given how much attention he lavishes on them. But while the details themselves provide much in the way of immediate satisfaction, their emphasis has the consequence of undermining the rich social subtext of the material—a subtext that, given the setting, could have been mined to usefully substantive effect.
The novel, of course, functions as a fairly direct historical critique, confronting the specter of the old French decadence following the Revolution. Pre-war, pre-Communist China seems an ideal context from which to offer similarly pointed criticism, but aside from the notable class disparity necessarily retained from the novel and one throwaway scene featuring a protester, Dangerous Liaisons forgoes engaging with the political dimension of its story altogether. Despite the abundant surface pleasures the vision of its milieu provides, its lack of insight or engagement makes this adaptation feel, ultimately, like a missed opportunity.