Love. Lust. Jealousy. Duplicity. Revenge. These are more than the staples of daytime soap operas, they can be the building blocks of commanding novels like Choderlos de Laclos' infamous "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."
If that initially banned 1782 French work doesn't sound familiar, its numerous film adaptations certainly will. The deliciously subversive story of innocence corrupted and love trumped attracted French director Roger Vadim and star Jeanne Moreau in 1959 as well as costars Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe in 1999's "Cruel Intentions." And the Stephen Frears-directed "Dangerous Liaisons," coming out a year before Milos Forman's "Valmont," won Christopher Hampton an Oscar for screenplay adaptation.
Now comes "Untold Scandal," a version that is certainly the most unexpected and may even be the best of the lot: genteelly erotic, surprisingly emotional, exquisitely made from start to finish.
What's different about "Untold Scandal" is that it's not set in 18th century France but in the Korea of roughly the same era, the end of the Chosun dynasty. It was a time of public morality and private licentiousness strikingly like the pre-revolutionary France of the original novel, an era that gave free rein to cynics and connivers who believed that falling in love was the ultimate delusion.
As evoked with highly polished beauty by director E. J-yong, this was also a world that lived for ritual and artifice. "Untold Scandal" revels in meals and flower arrangements that are works of art and in characters so beautifully costumed across the board that even ill-mannered ruffians are neatly and cleanly dressed.
Completely at home in a society that covers inner decay with outer elegance are a pair of flirtatious cousins. With his impeccable, trimmed Mephistophelean beard and roue's leer, Jo-won (Korean TV star Bae Yong-jun) is the very picture of a pleasure-seeking rake who devotes himself to art and women, not in that order. When he explains his refusal to remarry after his wife's death with a pious "my heart has room for only one person," his cousin snaps back, "that person changes by the hour."
That cousin would be the domineering Lady Cho (Lee Mi-sook), the one conquest that has always eluded Jo-won. She promises herself to the artist under one condition: he seduce her husband's 16-year-old future second wife, Soh-ok (Lee Soh-yeon), and impregnate her before the ceremony.
Jo-won, however, has his eye on a more difficult prize. He vows to snare the beautiful Lady Sook (Jeon Do-yeon), a widow who has so avoided men since her husband's death nine years earlier that the government named a Gate of Devotion after her in recognition of her purity. Adding a shrewd wrinkle that was absent in the original, "Untold Scandal" also turns the lady into a covert practitioner of the banned religion of Catholicism.
Undaunted by a challenge, Jo-won turns all his practiced moves and subterfuges on Lady Sook, but his pursuit of her has emotional consequences he has not anticipated, consequences that ripple outward and have a profound effect on the lives of each of the film's central characters.
Director E. J-yong, who was also one of the screenwriters, employs all of the filmmaker's tools, including a score that cleverly uses the music of both Korea and 18th century France, to create an impeccable sense of mood and place. His film is as at home with the pleasures of the flesh as the connivances of the soul, and he completely understands the terrible power of love and lovers scorned.
Choderlos de Laclos' novel has survived this long for a reason, and "Untold Scandal" shows us exactly what that is.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Nudity, sensuality, sexual activity
Bae Yong-jun... Jo-won
Lee Mi-sook... Lady Cho
Jeon Do-yeon... Lady Sook
Cho Hyeon-jae... Kwon In-ho
Lee Soh-yeon... Lee Soh-ok
Released by Kino International. Director E. J-yong. Producer Oh Jung-wan. Executive producer Lee Kang-bok. Screenplay E. J-yong, Kim Dae-woo, Kim Hyun-jung. Cinematographer Kim Byung-il. Editors Kim Yang-il, Han Seung-ryong. Costumes Jung Ku-ho. Music Lee Byung-woo. Production design Jung Ku-ho. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
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