espite having a somewhat similar title and
sharing a Category III rating, "The Untold Scandal" is not in fact
another entry in the ongoing Hong Kong "Untold
Story" series. It is instead a new treatment of the classic French
novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" by Choderlos De Laclos,
previously given the Hollywood makeover in the Oscar winning "Dangerous
Liaisons" and in the disposable, teen friendly "Cruel
Intentions". "The Untold Scandal" is a Korean version of
the story, directed by Je-yong Lee, who was responsible for the popular
Affair" and the thoughtful romantic drama "Asako
in Ruby Shoes".
Through its opulent production
design and 18th century Korean setting, the film attempts to offer something
different in terms of added emotional complexity and far franker sexual
content than its predecessors. As a result of these factors, and perhaps
more so due to the power of the original story, "The Untold
Scandal" is an excellent film, a fascinating and complex costume drama
that offers a beguiling glimpse into the practices and restrictions of a
very different society. The film also has a sly, subtle sense of humor, and
there are many amusing moments amongst the devious plotting and bitter
Although slightly unambitious in that it does not
stray far from the source material, "The Untold Scandal" has
character enough of its own to make for an interesting and highly
enjoyable watch, whether viewers have seen the previous versions or not.
As in the original text, the story revolves around the games of two
immoral aristocrats, in this case Jo-won (Yong-jun Bae, predominantly a TV
actor, known for the "Winter
Sonata" series), an arch-seducer and playboy, and Lady Cho, his
sinful cousin (Mi-suk Lee, also in "An Affair"). After her
husband takes a new concubine, the naïve, 16-year-old So-ok (So-yeon
Lee), Lady Cho plots with Jo-won to rid the new bride of her virginity
before she can make it to the marital bed.
However, Jo-won has another conquest in mind, the
virginal Lady Suk (Do-yeon Jeon, star of "The
Harmonium in my Memory"), who has vowed to live a life of
chastity after her husband's tragic death before the consummation of their
marriage. Jo-won and Lady Cho make a wager over his success in his quest
to deflower the widow, using his desire for her as a prize, and the two
enter into a complex, twisted game of deception and seduction.
It is a testament to the enduring nature of "Les
Liaisons Dangereuses" and its universal themes that it fits so
harmoniously into this new context and setting. Korean society at the time
was very much in the thrall of the teachings of Confucius, and the roles
of men and women were not prescribed so much as set in stone. In a period
when even looking at a member of the opposite sex could be viewed as
scandalous, this makes the immoral behavior of the protagonists all the
more rebellious and interesting.
Lee fully invokes the manners and formalities of the
society, giving the film a fascinating and accurate historical backdrop.
In addition to this, the film provides a stark contrast between the public
and private behavior of the characters, for whom open wooing involves a
complex, subtle series of gestures and practices. This device serves to
highlight the film's fairly graphic eroticism, which is never employed
gratuitously and never threatens to drag the proceedings into sleaze or
Director Lee has obviously spent a lot of effort
imbuing his film with the necessary trappings to bring feudal Korean
society to convincing life. He does this skillfully, and the aesthetics of
the film are simply incredible. The events of the film take place in a
series of elaborate, meticulously furnished locations and ornate gardens
which are very impressive, as are the gorgeous costumes worn by the cast.
Lee has a great eye for detail, and he pays delightful attention to
moments such as the setting out of meals and application of makeup. It is
through such nuances that he succeeds in immersing the viewer in the
story, and in making the film an artistic pleasure.
Since the pace of the film is as stately and formal
as its characters, and given that most viewers will be familiar with the
story already, there is a risk of boredom or over familiarity. Lee keeps
the viewer engrossed, not only through the film's visuals and complex
characters, but also by injecting some comedic moments. These generally
either comes in the form of the ironically polite public behavior of the
immoral aristocrats, or in a few more ribald moments. These are interwoven
well with the film's more serious scenes, and never intrude upon its
bitter emotional heart.
The acting is superb, especially Mi-suk Lee as the
devious Lady Cho. Lee gives an amazing performance in the film's pivotal
role, giving her character real emotional depth and adding a touch of
tragedy and loneliness to her schemes and manipulations, ensuring that she
is far more than a pantomime villainess. Do-yeon Jeon is similarly
stunning as Lady Suk, a tragic figure who is torn between her virtue and
growing feelings of love and indeed lust. She is the film's emotional
core, and carries this responsibility well, generating viewer sympathy and
providing a plausible Achilles heel for Yong-jun Bae's heartless playboy.
"The Untold Scandal" comes highly
recommended, and not only to fans of the original story or those who enjoy
historical dramas in general. The themes of lust and deception are played
out in such a wonderfully immoral manner, and against such a lush,
beautiful backdrop, and the film is so mature, complex and witty, that it
will win over viewers of all persuasions.