Cannes 2012: China has a dangerous liaison with a classic
CANNES, France -- Western directors have been looking east for years, remaking and borrowing from countries like China and South Korea with Tarantino-esque abandon.
Asian filmmakers, however, have been far less inclined to go the other way and tackle a film from Europe or North America, which makes a Chinese reimagining of the Western staple "Dangerous Liaisons" notable, and a little strange.
Best known as Stephen Frears' 1988 Glenn Close-John Malkovich movie, "Liaisons" has had numerous interpretations since beginning life in the 18th century as a French novel about the manipulative Marquis de Merteuil.
But it's never quite been incarnated as it has in the Chinese-South Korean co-production, also titled "Dangerous Liaisons," that premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival's Directors' Fortnight section, where it seeks American and European distribution. Nor, perhaps, has it ever been done for such a particular set of marketplace reasons. The Asian spin is as much about the modern global economy as it is about cross-cultural storytelling.
"Part of the reason I decided to remake this is of course that it is well-known in the West," the producer Chen Weiming told 24 Frames via a translator on Thursday. "And we want this movie to have a big audience in Europe and North America."
In crafting what they hope will be a global release, Chen and director Hur Jin-ho shifted the romantic drama from 18th century France to 1930s Shanghai, and gave the film's coolly conniving marquis an Asian spin. Mo Jieyu, as she's now known, is a sexy entrepreneur (Cecilia Cheung) who manipulates the romantic lives of a number of people around her in the name of love and, more often, sport. She utters lines like "To get a man's heart I must play games; to survive I must remain unfathomable."
In an interview, Cheung said she felt a kinship to the take-charge character. "Even at age 8 I was giving orders," she said, "and expecting everyone will listen."
Directed by the South Korean Hur (chosen, Chen said, because "there are not so many directors in China who could do this movie") and featuring a mix of Chinese and South Korean actors such as Zhang Ziyi, the new "Dangerous Liaisons" plays at times like a screwball comedy -- complete with bouncy music and playful Dallas-esque machinations -- before eventually taking a tragic turn.
"What we want to say is that if relations between men and women are treated like a game, it will end in tragedy," Hur said.
Chen added that he thought it also had something to say about contemporary Asia. "There are a lot of similarities between Shanghai in the 1930s and China today, where there is much material wealth but not as much human concerns."
Most Western titles that have migrated to Asia, like "High School Musical," have been essentially formats that retain the outlines of the story and swap in local references. Zhang Yimou provided one of the few exceptions several years ago when he attempted a genuine remake with "A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop," was an Asian reimagining of the Coen Bros. "Blood Simple."
His film and "Liaisons" represent a new twist on the traditional Asian-Western cultural exchange. As China attempts, tentatively, to become an exporter as much as an importer -- see under Christian Bale-Zhang collaboration "The Flowers of War" last year, which shares a screenwriter with "Liaisons" -- remakes are an opportunity to further smooth the way. It's (presumably) a lot easier to sell a cultural product to a Western audience if that product is merely a repackaging of something they already know.
Cannes audiences have been mostly enamored with "Liaisons," giving the film enthusiastic ovations when it premiered earlier this week. Whether a global audience will respond the same way remains unclear. Though there is a familiar arc and a more conventional manner of storytelling than exists in many Chinese period pieces, the film is still ultimately a culturally specific Chinese remake of what was in itself just an art-house hit.
Its backers, however, say they believe the movie's themes are one of its biggest selling points. "The human concerns make this a movie for everyone," said Chen. "the relations between the sexes is something everyone can relate to."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: "Dangerous Liaisons." Credit: Zonbo Media