The French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been adapted for the screen several times, including the critically acclaimed Dangerous Liaisons (1988) which employed a traditionalist approach, as well as a successful contemporary teenage variation with Cruel Intentions (1999).
Untold Scandal relocates the infamous text to 18th century Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, an era of strict Confucianism and the emergence of then-illegal Catholicism, a time when men were allowed multiple wives and concubines and women had precious few rights. As such, the French literature so concerned with scandal is transplanted astonishingly well, and aside from rather uninspiring direction, is an entertaining tale in old Korea.
Sir Jo-won (Bae Yong-joon (배용준) is the most famous lothario in the land, a man of ill-repute who passes his days bedding the local women and painting images of his conquests. His cousin and rival Lady Jo (Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), is a manipulative and vindictive woman of aristocracy who, upon learning of her husband’s desire for 16 year old concubine So-ok (Lee So-yeon (이소연), forges a gambit with her sexually predatory cousin; take the virtue of the concubine and impregnate her, and in exchange Sir Jo-won can have the prize he’s always coveted – a night with Lady Jo. Should he fail however, Sir Jo must spend the rest of his days as a monk. Considering the bet to be unchallenging, Sir Jo raises the stakes by including bedding the most virtuous widow in the land, Lady Jung (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연), and sets out to fulfill the task and receive the conquest he has always desired.
18th century Korea is wonderfully realized in Untold Scandal, and the costume and set designers deserve praise for their painstaking attention to detail throughout the film. The costumes in particular form a major proponent of the mise-en-scene, as the style and colour schemes of the traditional hanboks worn are indicative of the personality of the wearer; the seductive yet dangerous reds worn by Lady Jo are in stark contrast to the calm and natural blues worn by Lady Jung, and as such protagonists convey a wealth of emotion and anticipation through their appearance alone. Director Lee J-yong captures the world of Untold Scandal competently and with sincerity, yet his style is often bland and uninspiring, framing the action as if it were on stage rather than celluloid. Furthermore, the director’s apparent preference for mid-shots tends to detract from establishing the beauty of the era with long-shots or, crucially, the intense seduction between the protagonists with close-ups. However, the performances of the cast more than redress these shortcomings as their provocative and flirtatious encounters with each other are palpable.
The narrative is, as expected from the source material, a captivating and enthralling tale and the inclusion of features inherently Korean serve to enhance the story in a varied and interesting fashion. The strict Confucian ideology of the era serves to make Sir Jo-won’s bet more difficult to achieve, as Lady Jung initially will only communicate through a proxy for fear of sullying her reputation as a virtuous woman. As was commonplace in the Joseon Dynasty, men were within their rights to have a wife as well as several concubines, roles which Lady Jo and So-ok embody quite naturally and serve to give an alternative perspective on their troublesome relationship. Rather than letters or a diary, Sir Jo-won paints his conquests in the style of Joseon painters adding authenticity as well as a unique spin on the evidence of his philandering. Combined, these organic features establish Untold Scandal as unmistakably Korean, with the contrasting approach conveying the seductions and betrayals as markedly different from other adaptations.
As is often the case, Jeon Do-yeon is incredible in her portrayal of Lady Jung and outshines the rest of the cast. Her performance evolves from icy to humble with deft skill, although the jump from humble to loving requires further suspension of disbelief. Such criticism is also applicable to Bae Yong-joon as Sir Jo-won, who is never convincing in his declarations of love for Lady Jung. As a casanova, Bae Yong-joon performs well despite lacking the charisma and subtlety expected of the role, raising doubts as to how he is able to seduce so many woman. For example the night in which he beds concubine So-ok is not achieved through mastery of seduction or language, but through force. The scene is conveyed as rape rather than alluring temptation, and undermines Sir Jo-won’s character enormously. Despite her limited role, Lee So-yeon (이소연) portrays the naivety of So-ok wonderfully, and it’s a shame more dramatic scenes, such as the ramifications of her actions, were not produced to convey the shattering of her innocence. So-ok’s mentor Lady Jo is captivatingly performed by Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), who seemingly seethes with vengeance and pride. Lee Mi-sook not only wonderfully conveys, but clearly also relishes, every ounce of tension, manipulation and seduction she creates in every scene. Her character is somewhat limited however in that there are scant few scenes of her actually displaying her enticing prowess, which serves to make her threatening demeanor slightly shallow.
Untold Scandal is a delightfully scandalous and entertaining film about seduction and betrayal in 18th century Korea, with beautiful costume design that adds elegance and authenticity to the mise-en-scene. The adaptation works incredibly well and offers an interestingly unique perspective on the source material. However the direction by Lee J-young is often bland and uninspiring due to a general lack of technical variation, failing to fully capitalise on the lustful charisma between the protagonists, which are joyous performances despite their occasional limitations. Untold Scandal is highly engaging and enjoyable, and a fascinating take on an old classic.