BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: dangerous liasons.

PIERRE Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses has had a number of glossy, attractive re-workings. This Korean adaptation has similarities to its other more famous siblings (Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont, Cruel Intentions) – essentially it’s beautiful people doing despicable things to each other. And while it’s hard to really care about the awfulness on display at times, Untold Scandal is an immaculately shot, rather sexy version of a society in freefall and moral decay.

Lord Cho-Won (Bae Yong-Jun) is a lascivious nobleman in 18th Century Korea. Lusting after his cousin, the glacial Lady Cho (Lee Mi-Sook), he promises to impregnate Lady Cho’s husband’s new concubine and also seduce the virginal Lady Chung (Jeon Do-Yeon). The unexpected results and self-flagellation which eventuates makes for engaging if cold viewing – it is very hard to sympathise with most of the characters involved. However, the film is nothing short of compelling, and even those who are familiar with the storyline would relish the intricate narrative unwinding. Beautifully shot, with intimate camera angles and immaculately composed chamber imagery, it’s almost too pretty – the behaviour jars a little too much with the prettiness on show, which in turn limits the film’s resonance.

The novel has been read to predict the French Revolution when it was released, with its nobility (or the ancien régime) driving themselves to oblivion by their own insular games – and as a result, is a highly moral tale. This film retains this morality to an extent, and is set just before internal and dynastic turmoil in Korea would plunge the peninsula into chaos. The film shows a Korea on the verge of transition – Western influences such as Christianity, a rise in intolerance, and a mobile population (caused by things such as the plague) are part of the backdrop. This does allow the immoral behaviour to speak to a wider resonance (perhaps more so than films like Dangerous Liaisons) and the petty and cruel behaviour fits right into the times ahead. After all, when people can be this cruel when it comes to love, just imagine what they’d be like when it comes to hate.