Focus won't sweat NC-17 for 'Lust'

Schamus won't 'change a frame'

NEW YORK -- The MPAA thinks Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" has too much lust, and it's cautioning moviegoers by branding it with an NC-17 rating.

Distributor Focus Features said it won't edit the Oscar-winning Lee's follow-up to "Brokeback Mountain" or try to appeal the rating -- which says that no one 17 and under will be admitted -- creating potential distribution problems for its awards-season contender.

"Lust" follows a young Chinese woman in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II who becomes the center of a plot to seduce and kill a married enemy collaborator. The trailer for the subtitled Chinese-language film shows lead actors Tony Leung and Tang Wei in various states of writhing passion.

The MPAA ratings board cited the film's graphic sexuality for its decision. A source said too many of the film's sex scenes violated the ratings board's unwritten rules (like the number of allowable pelvic thrusts, for example) to make an appeal possible.

Sources who have seen the film said it contains at least three scenes -- one a long montage -- featuring multiple acts of aggressive sexual activity in different positions. There's no full-frontal male nudity (the source of some NC-17 rulings when shown in sex scenes), but male-on-female oral sex, non-S&M restraints and several nontraditional sexual positions are depicted, conveying the aggression and emotional conflict between the main characters.

When asked if anyone was shown, say, upside down, one viewer said, "It depends on where you're standing. They're very flexible."

Focus CEO James Schamus, who co-wrote the screenplay, said he is accepting the rating "without protest. When we screened the final cut of this film, we knew we weren't going to change a frame," he said. "Every moment up on that screen works and is an integral part of the emotional arc of the characters. The MPAA has screened the film now and made its decision, and we're comfortable with that."

Schamus didn't disclose how long the company was aware that "Lust" might receive an NC-17 but noted that Lee has final cut. "Ang is the filmmaker, and he brought this adaptation to life," Schamus said. "He knows exactly what he wants to realize and achieve in filming any given sequences, and he made the final decisions on how to stage, frame, shoot and edit them, much in the same way he did with 'Crouching Tiger' or 'Brokeback.' "

Focus' move could face challenges as the film readies for its Sept. 28 release. Some newspapers and TV outlets won't carry ads for NC-17 films, which has led non-MPAA-member distributors like ThinkFilm to release some features unrated.

Lee's adaptation of a short story by Chinese author Eileen Chang is co-written by Hui-Ling Wang and Schamus, who also serves as executive producer. Schamus is a longtime collaborator with Lee on such films as "Brokeback," "Hulk" and "The Ice Storm," and his former production company Good Machine (run with Ted Hope and David Linde, one-time Focus co-head and current Universal Pictures co-chairman) produced virtually all of Lee's work. Those alliances might have helped Lee shore up corporate support for his film.

As a subsidiary of MPAA member Universal Pictures, Focus must release its films with a rating. In many cases, especially with specialty divisions, distributors will pressure filmmakers to appeal or make necessary cuts to attain an R rating. There have been a few notable exceptions, including Fox Searchlight's drama "The Dreamers" and Sony Pictures Classics' thriller "Young Adam," which made $2.5 million and $770,000, respectively, in 2004.

It's unclear if the rating will deter Oscar voters, some of whom expressed distaste with the gay sex scenes in "Brokeback," which won Lee best director honors but lost the best picture race. John Schlesinger's X-rated 1969 gay hustler drama "Midnight Cowboy" won the best picture Oscar, and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 erotic drama "Last Tango in Paris" -- rated X -- earned the director and his star Marlon Brando nominations.

Universal's 1990 drama "Henry & June," which chronicled French writer Anais Nin's erotic relationship with American scribe Henry Miller and his wife, June, was the first film to be released with an NC-17 after years of debate over the X rating's boxoffice stigma. The studio released the 2005 NC-17 docu "Inside Deep Throat" and allowed its specialty division October Films to release Trey Parker's 1998 NC-17 porn spoof "Orgazmo."

But the company wasn't always as supportive of the NC-17 rating -- or Schamus. A 1998 project produced by Good Machine, Todd Solondz's "Happiness," was dropped by October Films after the film unit's owner Universal and corporate parent Seagram expressed concern over its controversial NC-17 content. Schamus and Linde went on to co-head the new Universal specialty film division Focus until Linde was appointed co-chairman of Universal last year.

"Lust" premieres in the next few weeks at the Venice and Toronto fests before opening in New York, followed by an Oct. 5 release in select cities.