Ang Lee's new film wrestles NC-17 rating

Ang Lee

Ang Lee’s new movie Lust, Caution, which opened in New York on Friday, has ignited a controversy over its explicit sex scenes and NC-17 rating. The rating can be a kiss of death at the box office, and stores like Blockbuster and Wal-Mart won't carry these films on DVD.

“The NC-17 rating has long been the movie industry’s equivalent of the scarlet letter,” said Lorenza Muñoz in the Los Angeles Times. If anyone can change that, it’s Ang Lee. His "stereotype-busting" Brokeback Mountain—about gay cowboys—“shattered Hollywood convention” and gained Lee a best-director Oscar. Lust, Caution has already “opened briskly in Hong Kong and Taiwan.” If it does well in the States, maybe Hollywood won’t “shy away” from the NC-17 label anymore. After all, “in the late 1960s and ’70s, major directors such as John Schlesinger, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, and Bertolucci made X-rated movies with big name actors including Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss and Lynn Redgrave.”

There’s such a double standard when it comes movie ratings in this country, said Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. It figures that the “Motion Picture Association of America, that tireless, cheerless band of Comstocks who regulate all things sexual and few things violent on behalf of the major studios,” gave Lust, Caution an NC-17 rating. “The horrors of female nudity (unshaven armpits!) and the vigorous pantomime of coitus apparently offended” their sensibilities. Yet the M.P.A.A. “routinely bestows R ratings to movies in which characters are tortured to death for kicks.”

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The sex scenes in Lust, Caution crossed the line, said Harry Forbes in Catholic Online, but the violence in it was understandable. In many ways, it’s a great film, which makes it “all the more unfortunate” that Lee “felt it necessary to shoot the somewhat aberrant sex scenes so explicitly.” Aside from the sex, though, there is “an extremely violent stabbing that commendably shows the true horror of violence as few other screen killings have.” It's “disturbing,” but “arguably more valid” than the sex scenes.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.