Sex and the (Chinese) City
A collision of West and East, the Chinese-made Dangerous Liaisons doesn’t run away from the -isms that typically imprison works of art in cages of politically determined rhetoric. With a wave of a cigarette holder, it pleads guilty of Orientalism, exoticism, Francophilism, gaze-ism and probably some others yet to be invented in the halls of academe.
Based on the fun-and-games epistolary novel of 1760s Versailles, since re-worked into a half-dozen plays and films, DL has proved enduringly popular. No matter what era the drama is set in–Versailles, 1950s suburbia, high school in Cruel Intentions–the girls and women of DL pop in and out of their corsets and underthings with the alacrity of quick-change artists.
This version, set in Shanghai in the 1930s, opens with Western music on the phonograph and Xie, a Chinese dandy (Jang Dong-Gun), standing before a mirror as his maid pops cufflinks through his ruffled French shirt. A young woman in Western dress arrives for what seems to be her first assignation with Xie, but there’s already a naked woman in his bed. While they fight he sips coffee and greets his grandmother, newly arrived with a pretty young widow (Zhang Ziyi) in tow. Next scene: a glamorous refugee relief benefit whose stunning society hostess, Mo, Xie’s friend-but-never-lover (Cecilia Cheung), asks Xie to sleep with the virgin fiancee (Candy Wang) of her last lover, who dumped her. I’ve left out a couple of romantic subplots here, but you get the idea. We’re on a carousel, the jaded are competing in seduction games and, eventually, that means they’ll get hurt, too.
Setting this version in Shanghai, however, is a stroke of genius. To Chinese patriots of the 1920s and 30s, whether Nationalist or Communist, Shanghai represented an ongoing humiliation by the West and Japan. The more vehement likened the city to a venereal disease on the body politic, which does give the sexual gamesmanship of DL a certain added piquancy. Previous versions of DL lacked a political context. This one plays smartly, showing how modern upper-class Chinese of the 1930s veered from Eastern to Western dress, culture and language.
In this case the tension that results makes this more than a very sexy story.