"Seduction and revenge. Two things that always give us great joy," Lord Jo-won coolly confides to his former lover, Lady Cho, before embarking on a wicked game. That's the heart of Untold Scandal, the lush Korean adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The film reflects the contrast and color of the Austin Film Society's upcoming series, aptly titled Asia: Hot and Cool. From the familiar plot of Dangerous Liaisons to the abstract dreams of a writer positing real-life events into the future and back, the six films showcased in Hot and Cool engage, entertain, and intrigue outside the American cinematic eye.
Untold Scandal opens the series, which runs Tuesdays through February. (The series moves to a new home at the Alamo Village; its traditional perch, the Alamo South Lamar, closes Jan. 3 for renovations.) The long-popular 18th century French novel of aristocratic intrigue and seduction isn't as much retold as simply recast in this faithful adaptation of the story that inspired both Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont in Western cinema. Here, the slight variations fit the class distinctions of this cat-and-mouse game that turns tragic by design, but not intent. Lord Jo-won cannot resist his plotting cousin Madam Cho's enticement to seduce her husband's concubine, but falls victim to his own yearning for Lady Sook, the paragon of virtue known as "the Gate of Chastity." Bae Yong-Jun, playing Lord Jo-won, was a newcomer to the silver screen in this 2003 production; his slick affection for the concubine he seduces and his cruel spurning of the hapless Lady Sook made for a formidable debut.
Wei Te-sheng's Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale tells an old story, one of the oldest of the world: Indigenous tribes, at war with one another, face an unexpected enemy in the form of invading and encroaching civilization. In 1930s Taiwan, some 35 years after being ceded to Japan by China, the Seediq Bale aboriginal tribe in the interior emerges from alcoholic haze and near enslavement to rebel against their ruthless Japanese oppressors, who think nothing of laying waste to the warriors with gas bombs. The film is based on a real event known as the Wushe Incident, in which 300 Seediq tribesmen laid a bloody and machete-heavy claim to their native lands, uncompromising and vicious in their desire to retake their highlands. Think Apocalypto minus the history-tinkering and Gibson taint, but retaining the unapologetic brutality in this tale of generational pride and cultural struggle.
Epic in the Braveheart sense, Empire of Silver trods the vast historical landscape provided by the last days of Imperial China's Qing Dynasty and the onset of the Boxer Rebellion. Intricately threaded and layered within a banking-empire family are secrets and love that go predictably but gorgeously awry, when the hedonistic Third Master is forced into the family business while falling in love with his stepmother. There's much to admire about director Christina Yao's broad sense of story and imagery, with sweeping, breathtaking cinematography that lingers in memory like fine embroidered cloth. Yao focuses less on the politics of the era than the struggle between duty and desire, and so reveals the intensely human machinations behind the cultural upheaval.
The series then skips to more contemporary times – well, to the 1960s, at least – with Norwegian Wood, the 2010 adaptation of Haruki Murakami's novel by Vietnamese-born director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Vertical Ray of the Sun). Set in Tokyo, the film follows a group of college students trying to make sense of a friend's suicide; Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood wrote the original score.
South Korean film Poetry – quiet, sometimes ponderous, yet absorbing in presentation and scope – is the study of an elderly woman's discovery of her love of poetry amid the revelation of her grandson's part in the rape and suicide of a schoolgirl. Star Yun Jung-hie hadn't acted in nearly 15 years when she took this role, and her portrayal of an elderly woman facing Alzheimer's in addition to the burden of her grandson's crime, as well as her soul-stirring pleasure in writing poetry, is complex and compelling. When she's drawn into a web of cover-up and payoff, she complies on her own terms, using sex and blackmail in a way that seems both benign and honorable.
With a hint of Blade Runner and a touch of noir, Wong Kar-wai's 2046 more or less follows 1991's Days of Being Wild and 2000's In the Mood for Love, Hong Kong offerings that also seethed with sex, style, and intrigue. 2046's cast reprises some of the characters from the previous films, which doesn't help if you haven't seen them, yet the vaguely David Lynch-like nature of the lighting and plot totally works in stringing together the stories and memories of a writer (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and the various women he encounters (including the estimable Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang). What's equally memorable is the exquisite costuming and styling, the Mad Men-like attention to sensual details of clothing and hairstyles, and the elegant black-and-white sequence. There's much to dazzle in this series-ending, eye-popping delight.
The Austin Film Society's latest Essential Cinema series runs Tuesdays at 7pm throughout January and February at the Austin Drafthouse Village Cinema (2700 W. Anderson). See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.
Jan. 8: Untold Scandal (D: E J-yong, 2003)
Jan. 15: Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (D: Wei Te-Sheng, 2011)
Jan. 22: Empire of Silver (D: Christina Yao, 2009)
Jan. 29: Norwegian Wood (D: Tran Anh Hung, 2010)
Feb. 5: Poetry (D: Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
Feb. 12: 2046 (D: Wong Kar-wai, 2004)
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