"How could I be attracted to a baby fox when I'm chasing after a tiger?"
Madame Cho, (Lee Mi-sook), and her cousin Cho-won, (Bae Yong-joon), are aristocrats in the Chosun dynasty (18th Century) who, outwardly, live pious lives following the moral teachings of Confucius, while secretly enjoying nothing more than playing dangerous games of power, seduction and revenge - illicitly bedding as many lovers as possible in the process. When Madame Cho's husband, Lord Yu, takes a sixteen year old virgin, So-oak (Lee So-yeon), as his concubine, Madame Cho decides pay back is required and attempts to enlist Cho-won's help in getting the young girl pregnant before Lord Yu can sleep with her. However, from Cho-won's point of view, the de-flowering of a naive young girl is not nearly enough of a challenge and, as he has already firmly set his mind on seducing Lady Jung, (Jeon Do-yeon), - a 27 year old virgin (known as the "Gate of Chastity") who was widowed before her marriage could be consummated - Madame Cho and Cho-won decide to undertake a bet: If Cho-won succeeds in taking Lady Jung's virginity, Madame Cho will reward him by giving him her body (something he has always wanted access to but has never been able to attain), but if he fails he will be required to give up his womanising and become a monk.
And so the bet gets underway, with Madame Cho and Cho-won each believing that they cannot fail to win, but both soon find that the rules of the game change when emotions become involved...
Untold Scandal is a re-working of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (by Choderlos De Laclos) and even though there are several other films which are also based on the novel, where Untold Scandal stands out can be summed up in one word: Pleasure.
More than any of the other adaptations, the main characters in Untold Scandal are shown not only to revel in their secret affairs, their sexual power games and in their ability to play with peoples lives and emotions, but to actually need the gratification that comes as a result - to the extent that absolutely everything they do is in the pursuit of that need, much more than simply being the actions of the bored and over-privileged.
Their enjoyment in their wanton actions is almost palpable, with the use of a good deal of well placed, dry humour enabling the personalities of both Madame Cho and Cho-won to be greatly expanded and, it must be said, the wit and intelligence with which that humour presents itself results in these unscrupulous characters actually being rather likeable for the majority of the story, even when they are behaving despicably.
There are also subtle references made to the characters' pasts which allow viewers (while not actually condoning the actions of Madame Cho and Cho-won) to, at least partly, understand what led to them being the way they are and, when karma finally comes calling in the latter stages of the film, all of the above causes a certain twist of emotions in viewers - knowing that retribution is deserved but, at the same time, feeling for both characters, to a degree, as their worlds fall apart.
In contrast to the constant pleasure sought, and experienced, by Madame Cho and Cho-won, Lady Jung is clearly shown to be a woman who will not allow herself to be truly happy. Her religious beliefs are sincerely felt and her work for the good of others is admirable - allowing her to feel that she is fulfilling a greater purpose - but it is plainly obvious that she has shut off all of her own feelings and emotions to save herself from being hurt again and, in so doing, has also closed the door on her chances of finding love, happiness and contentment.
The clashing of the extreme differences, in attitude to life, of Cho-won and Lady Jung can't help but affect, and change, both of them, setting in motion a chain of events which neither of them could possibly foresee.
Setting Untold Scandal in the Chosun Dynasty was an inspired move - the puritanical morals of the period being beautifully contrasted with the immoral goings on beneath the surface - and is expertly used to comment on the social etiquette of a historically patriarchal society which, for centuries, discriminated against women and those deemed to be of lower standing. Small scenes giving some insight into the lives of those in the service of the main characters help this further and bring yet more well-realised wit and humour to proceedings.
Of course, the success of a story detailing ideas of love vs lust and morality vs immorality is dependent on the believability of the situations in which the characters find themselves, and this is boosted (by a massive degree) in Untold Scandal by the decision to crank up the level of the sexuality portrayed. The explicitness of the "dangerous liaisons" is far beyond the level seen in most of the other adaptations but, since sexual gratification plays such a large part in the minds and desires of the two lead characters, it never appears as simply gratuitous and, in fact, greatly adds to the overall sensuality of the story throughout. The conclusion of the story is also altered (or, more accurately, added to) making it significantly more poignant and allowing a freshness to be brought to the plot for those already familiar with the novel, or other film adaptations.
*Viewers should be aware that there is a small "coda" section to the plot which follows the credits at the very end of the film*
Cinematically, Untold Scandal is utterly sumptuous. Settings, both inside and out, are stunning, with deep (almost luminous) colours used throughout - accentuating the lasciviousness present in each of the scenes and also allowing a visual contrasting of the differing social standings of the characters. Direction is pitch perfect and the camerawork has a smooth quality that results in it almost taking on a sensuality all its own. Musically, a mixture of traditional Asian and European classical is used - the traditional music largely being used during the (outwardly) moral scenes and the European classical accompanying the portrayal of the ever-increasing immoral goings-on. There is also a noticeable playfulness to parts of the soundtrack (especially early on in proceedings), complimenting the humour present and adding to the feeling that Madam Cho and Cho-won are truly having fun playing their sexual games - and thereby further reinforcing the likeability of the characters.
From the characterisations of the lead characters right through to the smallest supporting roles, the performances in Untold Scandal are exemplary. So much so, in fact, that it would be a difficult task to name many other films which universally contain acting of this calibre. Bae Yong-joon and Lee Mi-sook (as Cho-won and Madame Cho, respectfully), clearly revel in their roles as much as their characters revel in their sexual games and effortlessly manage to further increase the sensuality of this, already highly sexually charged, tour-de-force. The chemistry between the two actors is clearly on show throughout and, as a direct result, the underlying sexual tension between their characters (and their long-standing lust for each other) is obvious, long before it is outwardly stated in the plot.
Jeon Do-yeon is, quite simply, the best South Korean actress there is, and her portrayal of Lady Jung is everything that you'd expect, and more. Her ability to instantaneously switch from one emotion to another (often in quick succession) is, quite frankly, jaw-dropping and, especially in the final scenes, the pain which she is able to convey appears utterly, and heartbreakingly, real.
As already stated, the smaller supporting roles are perfectly portrayed by all concerned, and not a single criticism could be levelled at any of the cast performances in the entire film.
Untold Scandal is easily the most sensual and sumptuous of all of the adaptations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. A tour-de-force from beginning to end, Untold Scandal is a film which everyone should be told about.
Lee Mi-sook - Madam Cho
Bae Yong-joon – Cho-won
Jeon Do-yeon - Lady Jung
Lee So-yeon - Lee So-ok
Jo Hyun-jae - Kwon In-ho
Choi Ban-ya - Chu-wol
The DVD used for this review is the UK (Region 2) release from Soda Pictures, presented as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The print used for the transfer to DVD is exceptionally clean and there are no visual issues present. Colours are luxurious throughout, and full justice is given to the stunning imagery present in the film.
Sound is provided as Dolby 2.0 and is clean and crystal clear.
Excellent subtitles are also provided.
One nice little touch is the addition of a family tree (if you like) on the inside cover of the DVD packaging, featuring details of all the film adaptations made, with cast/crew and character information for each.
• Untold Scandal Theatrical Trailer
• Stills Gallery
• Soda Pictures Trailer Reel
• Director: Lee Jae-yong
• Format: PAL,
Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled
• Language: Korean
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0
• Region: Region 2
• Aspect Ratio:
• Number of discs: 1
• Classification: 18
• Running Time:
124 minutes (approx.)