Dir. E J-Yong. Korea 2003. 120 mins.
E j-Yong's new film is the best proof that a good story will strike roots wherever it is planted and, once lit from the right angle, will bear fruit. Last weekend Untold Scandal enjoyed the biggest opening ever in Korean history (over $5m in the first four days) and is now set to smash all previous box-office records there. While this new version of Dangerous Liaisons takes as it source material Chorderlos de Laclos' 18th-century tale of promiscuity and deceit in the French upper classes, it still effortlessly travels to the other side of the world, homing in on Korea's Chosun dynasty with only minor cosmetic changes required to put it comfortably in place. A meticulously stylised production, it is a prime candidate to break through in many markets that are normally closed to foreign language cinema. Film festivals are advised to book as soon as possible before they miss the train.
The production of Untold Scandal was, at $5m-$6m, particularly expensive in Korean terms. A third of it was allegedly invested in costumes - and it, and much more, is all up on screen. The film is a showpiece, directed with a great deal of precision and an eye for glossy glamour and enhanced by the work of a superlative technical crew in every department. Imagery has a polished, pristine quality which often transforms the exceedingly handsome cast into brilliantly designed porcelain dolls. There are generous displays of nudity - the actors look great whether dressed or undressed - with their characters sometimes at rest, at other times in action. It is all rounded off by an effective soundtrack, which consists of pseudo-period music, part Western-part Korean.
The story is only too familiar. Lady Cho (Lee Mi-Sook) asks her dear relative, Cho-Won (Bae Yong-Jun), a high-profile philanderer who has given up court assignments to write poetry and paint erotic drawings of his affairs, to corrupt an ingenue who is about to become her husband's official concubine. Cho-Won, after a lifetime dedicated to the fine art of making women swoon in his arms, thinks the girl is too easy a prey and would rather tackle a tougher challenge, the chastely pious Lady Chung (Jeon Do-Yeon). So secure is he in his capacity to achieve his goal that he is even willing to bet on it.
Applying his considerable talent to break down her resistance, he is finally caught in his own snare and falls in love with his intended victim. He then has to deny himself the fruits of his victory in order to preserve his reputation as the ultimate man about town who will never allow his feelings to take control.
The names of the characters are naturally different and the family ties between them have been reshuffled in E J-Yong's adaptation. The garb of the French court is obviously replaced by exquisitely fashioned Korean dresses, but otherwise, this is a pretty faithful rendition of the original story both in spirit and plot. Even the letter format of the original novel is back, smoothly integrated at several points into the story.
Yet E J-Yong is not afraid to borrow from other sources as well. Yong's seducer has several of Don Juan's characteristics and a similar kind of valet, too, while a final twist relates to the scandal caused by the publication of Cho-Won's compromising drawings.
The film captures all the hypocrisy, double standards and fake morality of a repressive and degenerate society and the scathing satire, dipped here and there in sorrowful melodramatic tones, works as effectively in Korea as it did in France. It also has the distinction of being more sexually explicit than any of the novel's previous adaptations. Subtlety may not be its forte, certainly when it comes to lead man BaeYong-Jun, a local TV idol, while some of the intrigues are a bit too underlined for comfort. But Lee Mi-Sook as the scheming Lady Cho and Jeon Do-Yeon, as the chastely virtuous Lady Chung, never make a wrong move and are always a pleasure to watch.
Prod cos: bom Film Production
Int'l sales: CJ Entertainment
Prod: Oh Jun-Wan
Scr: E J-Yong, Kim Deh-Woo, Kim Hyun-Yung
Cinematography: Kim Byung-Il
Ed: Kim Yang-Il, Han Seung-Ryong
Prod des: Jung Ku-Ho
Music: Lee Byeong-Woo
Sound: Lee Seung-Chul
Main cast: Bae Yong-Yun, Lee Mi-Sook, Jeon Do-Yeon