Director - E J-Yong
Screenplay - E J-Yong, KIM Dae-Woo, KIM Hyun-Jung
Based on the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos
E J-Yong presents a wonderful adaptation Les Liaisons Dangereuses by setting the story among the Korean aristocracy towards the end of the Chosun Dynasty. He opens a window into a time and place not well known to viewers outside of Korea, but the motivations and actions of the characters translate into any culture. Yong’s script ups the stakes by including the spread of Catholicism, which was illegal to practice.
The premise is basically the same. Filled with spite, Lady Cho asks her younger cousin, Cho-won, to deflower and hopefully impregnate, Soh-ok, who is to become her husband's concubine. Cho-won, who is a notorious womanizer agrees. He also reveals that he is interested in seducing Lady Sook, the niece of Lady Cho’s next-door neighbor. Lady Sook is a Catholic and she has been celibate since her husband's death nine years ago. As talented as he is with women, Lady Cho doubts that Cho-won will be able to pull off this feat, so she issues a challenge. If Jo-wun succeeds in his conquest of Lady Sook, Lady Cho will give herself to Cho-won, a prize that he has long desired. If he fails, then he must give up his life and become a monk. The challenge is accepted. As more people fall into the web of deceit, the game inevitably comes crashing down.
For those of you familiar with the 1988 version by Stephen Frears, I thought this film was its equal. The performances were wonderful. Especially Mi-suk Lee as the cold and calculating Lady Cho. There are moments when you understand what has driven her to the emotional isolation she is in. Or is it just more manipulation on her part? Another wonderful performance is by Do-yeon Jeon, who goes through a wide range of emotions as Lady Suk. She patiently stops the advances of Jo-wun only to cast off her Catholic beliefs and succumb to her desires. The moment she finds happiness in that decision she quickly becomes aware that she made the wrong choice.
The film started with an interesting narrative device. The narrator opens a book and tells us that the story is so outlandish for the time that there is reason to believe it might not be true. The viewer learns that the story was recorded by Cho-won who chronicled all his exploits by painting pictures of his conquests. We see him painting the women throughout the film. His servant gets the book published, which we then see as being the same book from the opening. Once the elders learn of the scandalous activities that have taken place there are bitter consequences for some of those involved.
My one quibble would be the scene between Cho-won and Lady Sook’s brother-in-law, who has come to avenge his family’s honor once word gets out. Cho-won is a masterful fighter, but after repeatedly knocking his attacker about, he turns his back and is stabbed. While I understand the end result as being true to the story, I don’t understand what happened. Why would Cho-won turn his back on his attacker? If he felt he deserved his punishment, why don’t see him make the decision, and if that’s the case, why fight back in the first place.
Untold Scandal is, if my research is correct, the tenth retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses on film. Cable television illustrates on a nightly basis that we have an insatiable appetite for stories about sex and deceit, so there’s no surprise that filmmakers continually return to this story. I enjoyed this look into a culture and time I knew very little about although the people in it were very familiar.