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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: Untold Scandal (2003)

* * *

Director: E J-yong
Starring: Bae Yong-joon, Jeon do-yeon, Lee Mi-sook

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses is not a gentle novel. It's about two cruel people who, for their own amusement, spread their poison through their community, destroying everyone who crosses their path while also inadvertently destroying themselves. It's a nasty little piece of work (and I mean that in the best possible way) with sharp edges everywhere, so adapting it to the screen and making the story overtly sentimental is kind of a weird choice and, in the case of Untold Scandal, not an altogether successful one. At the same time, it's understandable by filmmaker E J-yong would have decided to go in that very different direction given that the book has already been adapted multiple times in a number of different mediums and given that at least one of those previous adaptations (Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons) is basically perfect. Untold Scandal is not perfect, but it is an interesting adaptation that up until the third act has a real bite to it.

In this version of the story the action is transported to 18th century Korea where Madam Jo (Lee Mi-sook) enlists her libertine cousin Jo-won (Bae Yong-joon) for a special assignment. Madam Jo's husband is about to take a new concubine, Lee So-ok (Lee So-yeon), and in order to avenge herself Madam Jo asks Jo-won to seduce and impregnate So-ok. Jo-won declines, declaring that So-ok would present no challenge to someone of his skill when it comes to seduction, and soon enough he and Madam Jo have settled on another target for him in the form of the widow Lady Jeong (Jeon do-yeon), a Catholic renowned for her chastity, agreeing that if he succeeds in bedding her, then Madam Jo will finally sleep with him herself. While Jo-won sets about trying to crack Lady Jeong's icy exterior, Madam Jo continues with her own plot to ensure that So-ok will be "spoiled" before the wedding ceremony. She believes that she hits upon a solution when So-ok has a brief encounter with Kwon In-ho (Jo Hyun-jae), a music tutor who is almost as young and naive as she is, and begins secretly drawing them into each other's path. However, when Jo-won discovers that So-ok's mother, who is his former lover, has been telling tales about him to Lady Jeong, Jo-won decides to get his revenge by seducing her daughter after all.

As Jo-won suspected, getting So-ok into bed takes little effort (though it comes about less as a result of seduction and more as a result of force), but the success gives him a renewed sense of confidence as he takes another shot at charming Lady Jeong (Madam Jo, meanwhile, has some success of her own in seducing In-ho). With some aid from his manservant, whose seduction of Lady Jeong's lady in waiting allows Jo-won to arrange to run into her "accidentally" and then just as fortuitously to come to her rescue when she wanders down the wrong street and finds herself advanced upon by a trio of men, Jo-won throws himself into winning her favor. He commits so thoroughly to selling the idea that he's enamored with her and that his intentions are genuine that not only does he begin to convince her, but he begins to convince himself as well. His pride, however, prevents him from admitting as much to Madam Jo which makes him susceptible to her manipulations when she decides to flex her muscle by having him abandon Lady Jeong with the promise that she'll now sleep with him - a promise which she reneges upon and which results in a series of tragedies that occur like dominos falling.

If you have even a passing familiarity with the Dangerous Liaisons story, then most of the plot turnings are no surprise, though they're no less delightful when done right as they are here. As the two central characters Lee and Bae have the sort of crackling chemistry that makes the characters' partners in crime act not only work, but seem as if it's been working since well before the events of the film. There's a feeling of familiarity and ease between them that makes it seem like the plot is one of many schemes that they've undertaken together during the course of their relationship, which of course gives the break that occurs in the third act the power and resonance that it needs. In Untold Scandal the third act is where the changes to the story are largely located, not in terms of the events exactly (the characters who always die still die here and in more or less the same ways), but more in terms of the mood. With Untold Scandal there is no bitter satisfaction at seeing the architects of misery get their well deserved comeuppance; instead the film ends with a muted sense of regret and sadness, which is fine but which lacks the punch that this particular story is capable of delivering.

Untold Scandal ends on a weaker note than it has to, but for the most part it's an effective film and a solid adaptation of the novel. It has a steady mischievous streak and no shortage of scenes marked by strong sensuality, both of which are necessary for this particular story, and its craftsmanship in terms of costuming and art direction are flawless. Untold Scandal is always a beautiful film to watch even as the story begins to diverge from its original path, and it ultimately never fails to entertain. If you've never read the book or seen the Frears' film version, the ending of Untold Scandal might not even feel too soft, but if you have it may be impossible to escape that impression. All told it's a good film but one which suffers slightly as a result of having so many other films with which to make a direct comparison.

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