Ang Lee is no stranger to controversy.
The Taiwanese-born director, 52, incurred the wrath of conservative critics including Bill O’Reilly with 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” his acclaimed tale, based on an Annie Proulx story, of two men caught in the throes of a raging but forbidden passion.
Lee’s latest, “Lust, Caution,” is the story of a different kind of dangerous attraction, one that blossoms between a beautiful young spy and a high-ranking Chinese official in the employ of the Japanese during World War II. Graphic in its depiction of their aggressive, acrobatic lovemaking, the film has earned the MPAA’s dreaded NC-17 rating — and with it, plenty of headaches for a filmmaker whose greatest desire is that his work be accessible to the moviegoing public.
“The rating itself is to protect children, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Lee, who arrived in the United States in 1979 to study at the University of Illinois. “In Taiwan, they have the same rating, the major difference being that the film is available to the general public. In China, where there is no ratings system, I had to cut a shorter version of the film before it could be approved by the censors.
“There’s no universal rule in these matters, and it’s always a question of taste, so you have to hope for the best within each system. In Europe, there islittle tolerance for violence, but sex is totally fine. Here, it’s the opposite. I just wish they would put the movie in theaters and not label it a porno. That’s not fair. But there are choices to be made, and I had to do what was necessary to make sure people could see this movie.”
That won’t be easy in America, where many theaters refuse to screen films rated NC-17, and the nation’s top rental chains, including Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, won’t carry them. While Lee acknowledges that his expectations for domestic box-office success are accordingly modest, he is more concerned that his story reach audiences in China.
“The young actors in the film were learning about their grandparents’ China, which was touching to me,” he says. “China has been through a lot, and things get lost. If this generation doesn’t connect with the past, which one will? We wanted to help make that happen. It was part of our mission.
“What will people say about this movie? You don’t challenge patriotism in Chinese culture, that’s simply not done. But at the same time, I wanted to explore those notions of patriotism, and I’m excited to see how they will work, not only in the movie but on the audiences today.”
Lee admits he was also drawn to the story, inspired by Chinese author Eileen Chang’s novella, because of its female lead, an aspiring actress thrust into the espionage game at the behest of her peers. An accomplished theater actor in his own right, Lee could empathize with his heroine’s youthful passion for stage work.
“I still remember my first time on stage, when I sensed that there was something out there that was the true me, and it was an electrifying moment,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be in theater or in movies, something unrealistic. It still amazes me that I’m able to do this for a living. When I read that short story, I felt like Eileen Chang was calling to me.”