Freedom of Expression Award: Ang Lee and James Schamus

Director Ang Lee and writer-producer James Schamus claim they never set out to break cultural boundaries or test the limits of the marketplace’s mores. As Lee says, “I just try to make the best movie I can make.”

But with “Lust, Caution,” their most recent collaboration — an erotic espionage thriller set in World WWII-era Shanghai — the duo helped pave the way for a sophisticated adult cinema that doesn’t shy away from risque material.

Schamus, also the CEO of Universal’s Focus Features, which released the NC-17-rated “Lust, Caution,” embraces NATO’s inaugural Freedom of Expression Award as “a celebration of the fact that we’re moving beyond the hypocrisy that said serious art couldn’t engage ideas, images and issues that the culture is engaged in, like human sexuality, explicitly portrayed when need be,” he says. “I think it’s the indication of a new dawn.”

A platform release, “Lust, Caution” eventually reached 143 theaters across the U.S. “We had extraordinarily smooth sailing,” Schamus says. “There were pockets of resistance, but unlike when (Vice President Dick) Cheney says that the insurgency is in its last throes, I would say hypocrisy is in its last throes.”

Lee and Schamus last challenged the status quo with 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a gay romance that, despite homophobic attacks, won three Oscars and grossed $83 million domestically.

For Lee, however, it’s always about telling a dramatic story first. Only after a film is complete, he says, “James gives me an indication of what trouble we might get into.

“I’m just happy to see the boundary is breaking down and we’re on better and better ground as a result,” Lee continues. “I think whenever we have a problem with the rating system, we wish to get the support from the theater chains and the audience.”

In 1998, Schamus fought with the MPAA’s rating board over an NC-17 rating given to Todd Solondz’s film “Happiness,” which was eventually released unrated. “It was an enormous struggle, one in which we lost,” he admits. But with “Lust, Caution,” Schamus embraced the industry ruling, “because that represented faithfully what we thought the movie was: a movie for grown-ups,” he says. “And by accepting it, we were able to send a signal to the industry at large that these movies are not an anathema, but far from it: They can be a big part of the culture.”

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