Ang Lee Discusses Lust, Caution, Sex, Ratings and Politics

The love story is where the film has found its press. Headlines boasted the fact that the film received an NC-17 rating and Lee and Focus Features didn’t hesitate in accepting the taboo rating. The highest grossing NC-17 movie ever was Showgirls which brought home $20.3 million so don’t expect Lust, Caution to break open any banks. However, for me the biggest question in regards to the NC-17 ratings was not the likes of “Why keep it?” or “Did you consider cutting scenes to get an R?” or even examining the making of the scenes (I know how to have sex and what it entails). I was more curious on Lee’s opinion of the rating in general and comparing it to the recently released Eastern Promises, which earned an R-rating despite ultra-violent scenes involving the sawing open of a man’s throat, a rather graphic sex scene and the much talked about naked bathhouse scene as Viggo Mortensen reveals all while slamming a knife into the back of a man’s head.

How does Lust, Caution compare? Well, you have about three sex scenes, admittedly showing more than you normally see (this isn’t just sweaty faces) and a murder involving quite a brutal stabbing. If you are wondering how it compares I would hope American audiences and ratings boards would be far more numb to seeing two people have sex than throats being cut and multiple stabbings, but that is just me.

I recently interviewed David Cronenberg regarding this issue, asking him if it was odd that Lust, Caution got an NC-17 for its depictions of sex while Eastern Promises survived the process with an R. While he hadn’t seen Lust, Caution yet he said, “I understand those scenes are pretty much hardcore sex scenes… I know that people like to say that the MPAA is more accepting of violence than they are of sex, but I am not sure that’s true. I think it depends on the context of the whole movie…”

Cronenberg goes on to explain to me, “[Eastern Promisesdoes ] have a sex scene that is fairly extreme in as well, not in terms of nudity and hardcoreness, but in terms of psychology where Kirill is watching Nikolai fuck a prostitute. They didn’t want us to cut that. My experience has not been what people have been saying.”

I am honestly baffled and when I posed the question to Lee he responded as I would have after saying he had no problem with the rating, but “[In] America I think they are too loose on violence,” he said. “I think that culturally they make an NC-17 rating equivalent to a porno movie and bad taste. I think that needs to be worked on.”

Back in March there was an article in Variety saying that the MPAA was “trying to make NC-17 respectable” but I think Ang has a better idea when he says that need to assure audiences it is a legitimate rating as he says, “They should be tighter on violence and give NC-17 out legitimately, not something that is impossible to reach. They keep stretching it, because they don’t want to lose business, so they keep stretching the R-rating way beyond R-rating.”

When I described Eastern Promises to Lee, since he had not yet seen it, he replied, “I think there is an imbalance, if NC-17 is a legitimate rating then that movie probably should get an NC-17.”

I quickly agreed asking him if the rating system bothered him as a filmmaker, “Not as a filmmaker, but as a person. [Violence] should be guarded and be looked at legitimately the same as sex.”

Thanks to only having 15 minutes we didn’t get into the “why” of that statement although it would have been a lot of fun because I felt he had a lot more to say. I do agree that it comes down to cultural differences though, but it still shocks me that our culture has a problem with sex more than it does graphic violence. If push came to shove I would much rather live in a society filled with nymphomaniacs than serial killers.

Lee says, “In comparison to Europe, they are shocked by the stabbing scenes. It is a very different culture.”

Boiling it all down I don’t think NC-17 will ever be viewed as a legitimate rating until there is something “worse” than it or a removal of the R-rating and a couple of additional ratings thrown into the mix between PG-13 and NC-17. Lee has a solid look at it and a positive outlook on the film’s future as he says, “At the end of the day I hope it does what it did in Taiwan. [In Taiwan it did] good business, got a rightful rating and sends a message that NC-17 is not equivalent to porno, bad taste movies, it just means for adults. Ideally that’s what it means.”

Lust, Caution is for adults and a film filled with far more than the explicit sex that has dominated the headlines. After winning a Golden Lion you would think more than just the sexual nature of the film would be discussed. Luckily I have seen it and can add my two cents and I hope more people check it out for the story it has to tell along with the history.

As Lee says, “It’s a miracle they let me make it,” and he isn’t talking about the shooting of the sex scenes folks. For a culture that is so against sex we sure don’t mind the discussion of it dominating our local newspaper headlines.

Lust, Caution opened Friday, September 28th, at one theater; the exclusive run is at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York City. Additional U.S. theaters and cities will be added on Friday, October 5th. The U.S. release is of the unedited NC-17 version. For more on the film including our review click here.