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Disturbing Ambiguity

This Korean take on 'Dangerous Liaisons' is beautiful and well-acted--and be sure to stay until the very end


At last count (i.e., five minutes ago, when I actually counted), there were nine movies and one miniseries made from Choderlos de Laclos' sly and sleazy Les Liaisons Dangereuses. None of them, however, is as beautifully photographed as Untold Scandal, director Je-yong Lee's Korean adaptation.

OK, I have no way of knowing if that's true, because I haven't actually seen Valmont, the Slovak production Neberzpecne Znamosti, the 1959 Les Liaisons Dangereuses or the Japanese Kiken Na Kanken. Obviously, though, Monsieur de Laclos knew how to write an adaptable novel. It's full of exactly the kind of things that movie audiences want to see: the deflowering of virgins (two of them!), the betrayal of lovers (four of them!), the bedding of comely lasses (an almost infinite number!) and other ribald and bawdy goings-on in 18th-century France.

If you already know the story, all the better, because it's a little hard to follow if you don't pay close attention. As a primer for those going to see this version (something you really ought to do), here are the basics: It's the 19th century. Master Cho-won is a libertine and rake who has spent the years since his first wife died bedding any Korean who lacks a Y chromosome. His cousin (or maybe sister ... it's a little unclear), Lady Cho, is stuck in a loveless, childless marriage. Her husband responds to Lady Cho's needs by acquiring a 16-year-old concubine to impregnate. Thus, Lady Cho asks Master Cho if he wouldn't mind knocking up this comely teen, young So-oak. See, Lady Cho is kind of the Ashton Kutcher of Korea, and she wants to wait many years until her husband is on his deathbed, and then "punk" him by letting him know that the child he raised and cared for is actually the offspring of another man. Ha ha!

However, Master Cho has other plans: There's a 27-year-old virgin staying nearby, a Catholic named Lady Jung who is renowned for her virtue, and Cho wants to see just how flexible her faith and her back are. Thus, he bets Lady Cho that he can get Lady Jung to do the double-monkey-dance with him. If he wins, he gets to "make kimchee" not only with Lady Jung, but with his sister/cousin Lady Cho. Juicy!

The story is pretty much The O.C. for the literary set. Director Je-yong Lee, however, gives it an incredibly artful gloss through some decidedly non-standard camera placements. Scenes are frequently shot from directly overhead, so that the actors are merely hats and hair, moving like chess pieces on the pristine fields of white and tan that make up the Korean courtyards and streets.

The sets are so clean you could eat off them, and the characters frequently stop to do just that, indulging in the gorgeously geometric arrangement of tiny dishes that make up fine Korean cuisine. The abstraction and rigidity of the arrangements of food, people and architecture is not only stunning to look at--and lit so smoothly that everyone appears to be made out of flesh-colored ice--they also serve to accentuate the movie's central theme: the extremely mannered nature of high society.

Lord Cho-won and Lady Cho act out their evil with such ease and joy, because they feel free to work outside the societal norms that bind their victims. Je-yong Lee expresses this not only in the visual style of the film, but also through careful direction of the actors. Jeun-du Yen, who plays the chaste Lady Jung, gives a tremendously complex performance. Seemingly naïve, she later appears to be the most sophisticated character and the only one who sees Cho-won for what he is. She is, though, still unable to fully resist Lord Cho-won's charms.

Bae-yong Jun, who plays Master Cho, is also deeply skilled, giving off at once the air of the amoral rake and the pained sense of a youth in love. Without the ability of these actors, Untold Scandal would just be Cruel Intentions with better cinematography (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but with the subtlety of performance that director Je-yong Lee gets from his strangely beautiful cast, Untold Scandal is raised into a disturbing ambiguity while never giving up the moral justice of the source material.

While Master Cho-won and Lady Cho's endings are easy enough to foresee, Je-yong Lee nonetheless manages to pack a small surprise into the close of his film. Stay until the credits have finished rolling, and you'll see one of the most diabolically clever shots in recent cinema. It only lasts a few seconds, but it completely undermines everything Cho and Cho-won have been doing. If you leave before this quick scene, you'll have watched a completely different film. Either way, you'll have seen something stunning.

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