Untold Scandal

on October 13, 2004 by Wade Major
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"Untold Scandal" is about the most told story in cinema today. Adapted from Choderlos de Laclos' "Dangerous Liaisons," this is at least the sixth screen version since the 1960s and the third in just the past six years. Not since Stephen Frears' 1988 adaptation of the Christopher Hampton play and Milos Forman's more faithful 1989 "Valmont," however, has anyone attempted to play it straight. The two most recent efforts--1998's "Cruel Intentions" and director Josee Dayan's 2003 French-language "Dangerous Liaisons"--both contemporized the story, while the new Korean variation from director E. J-yong transplants it to the Chosun Dynasty of the late 18th century. Each has its unique and colorful attributes, though when all is said and done, it's still the same sweet story of love, lust, treachery and betrayal.

E. J-yong has clearly done his homework, taking great pains to integrate the story as seamlessly as possible into the pageantry and courtly politics of Chosun-era Korea. The similarities between 17th-century Korea and 18th-century France actually make for a rather handy fit as Lady Cho (Lee Mi-sook in the Marquise de Merteuil part) conspires with her cousin Jo-won (Bae Yong-jin in the Vicomte de Valmont part) to deflower the virtuous, teenage Soh-ok (Lee Soh-yeon in the Cecile part), only to see him captivated instead by the devoutly Catholic widow Lady Sook (Jeon Do-yeon in the Madame de Tourvel part).

Apart from some cosmetic cultural and historical adjustments (Lady Sook's Catholicism being the most notable), it is the same story to a letter, which is both the film's strength and weakness. Anyone coming to the tale for the first time will not be disappointed--the fierce emotions and devious plot machinations are every bit as effective here as in either the Frears or Forman films. But those already well-familiar with the particulars will find precious little in the cultural transplantation to reenergize their interest. In a story of this sort, knowing what's coming drains away so much of the drama that even the most polished production values can't adequately compensate.

In the broader context of Asian film adaptations of Western literary masterpieces, "Untold Scandal" falls somewhere in the middle. Akira Kurosawa's skillful dalliances with Shakespeare and Hammet have, in some ways, set the bar unnaturally high, casting a long shadow across the many minor efforts that simply don't work at all. In this regard, E. J-yong's effort is commendable, despite its weaknesses. He could, after all, have simply tried remaking "Cruel Intentions." Starring Bae Yong-jun, Lee Mi-sook, Jeon Do-yeon, Cho Hyeon-jae and Lee Soh-yeon. Directed by E. J-yong. Written by E. J-yong, Kim Dae-woo and Kim Hyun-jung. Produced by Oh Jung-wan. A Kino release. Drama. Korean-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 124 min

Tags: Bae Yong-jun, Lee Mi-sook, Jeon Do-yeon, Cho Hyeon-jae, Lee Soh-yeon, Korean, Western, strength, weakness, machinations, devious, emotions, E. J-yong, foreign
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