Despite 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 “An 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 couplings.
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 naÃ¯ve, 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 cheap titillation.
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.
Je-yong Lee (director) / Dae-woo Kim, Hyeon-jeong Kim, Je-yong Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Mi-suk Lee …. Madam Jo
Do-yeon Jeon …. Suk
Yong-jun Bae …. Jo-won
Hyeon-jae Jo …. Kwon In-ho
So-yeon Lee …. So-ok