HONG KONG — Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” is an almost perfect example of a cultural divide.
So far, the Chinese-language film has grossed $4.4 million in North America, while overseas it’s scooped up 10 times that amount: a lusty $44 million, with much of it coming from Asia.
Asians went gaga over the film’s mix of hanky-panky and politics. But the sex was not enough to lure Americans, perhaps because the sexual grapplers were speaking Chinese in a 157-minute movie.
Four decades ago, the sex-centric “I Am Curious (Yellow)” was also subtitled and grossed big in the U.S. “Lust” couldn’t match that feat, but it helped break down the stigma of NC-17 in the U.S.: Despite conventional wisdom, it was booked by major chains and most newspapers had no trouble carrying the ads.
Speaking of the contrasting cultural — and box office — reactions to his film, director Lee says, “I didn’t imagine that the difference was so big.”
In Hong Kong it’s been in the B.O. top 10 for 82 days and has grossed $6.2 million. In Taiwan, it broke box office records and became one of the country’s biggest grossers of all time, in addition to winning nearly all the silverware at the recent Golden Horse kudosfest.
In China its cume since the Nov. 1 release stands at $16.8 million, making it the fifth- highest grosser of the year and the top Chinese-language movie to date (though it may lose that crown to “The Warlords”).
If Lee and co-writer James Schamus could not quite bridge the width of the Pacific Ocean, they united auds in Greater China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Lee says he was surprised by how mainland Chinese auds lapped up the version from which the three major sex scenes were virtually eliminated at the behest of the censor.
“I’ve never before known a Chinese movie that’s well liked in all three major parts of China,” Lee says.
The film may not have been the biggest grosser in China, but it is surely the most discussed pic of the year. There was endless talk about the seven minutes of sex scenes that were eventually sliced by director Lee in collaboration with the censors. As a bonus, Chinese medics fueled interest in the pic by warning that the sex scenes should not be copied by ordinary members of the public.
And the film’s steamy sex scenes sparked a public debate — a rarity in China — about the country’s one-certificate-fits-all rating system.
Many Chinese crossed the border to Hong Kong where they could watch the uncensored movie. Returning home, they stirred the word of mouth in China.
While the film was not immune from disc and online piracy, it was a big hit nonetheless. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, so Lee was treated as a national hero in both Taiwan, where he was born, and in China — ironic, since his previous “Brokeback Mountain” was not even allowed a Chinese release. And “Lust” originally looked like it might not get an outing either unless up to half an hour was cut.
The film is the first major one to deal with a period in history that many Asians are curious about: The Japanese occupation of China during World War II.
The political content has set leftists against moderates, been branded as a “traitor movie” and seen students petition the Ministry of Culture for a ban on the grounds that it is sympathetic to Japanese colonialism. Others said it did a disservice to virtuous Chinese women.
The China release was pushed back from late September until November when the political sensitivities of the Communist Party Congress would have dissipated.
The pic’s North American box office is respectable for a foreign-language film, but a big drop from Lee’s previous “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
In hindsight, it’s clear that the $100 million U.S. perf for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the exception, not the norm for foreign-language releases. “It’s not very audience-friendly for a market like the U.S. It’s not their subject matter,” Lee admitted at the Venice film festival.
In fleshing out Eileen Chang’s novella, co-scripters Lee and Schamus sought to balance Western need for narrative and Asian preference for mood and character.
“Even the most favorable reviews (in the U.S.) say the movie is too slow,” Lee says. “But from the Chinese audience, the biggest complaint was that it happened too quick. The historical background that is built into our genes is different. American people have never been occupied. The deep sadness and sentimentality, the cultural background that relates to melodrama that (Chinese) grew up with and propaganda…”
When the MPAA slapped its NC-17 rating on the film, the people at Focus and the filmmakers were not surprised: They had made and edited the film with the sense that this was going to be its rating.
“Before we released the film, the NC-17 was a topic of conversation, but it became a non-issue as it rolled across the country,” says Jack Foley, Focus prez of theatrical distribution.
“It redefined NC-17, which needed an appropriate definition — it was an abused rating,” says Foley. “Just as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ put a different perspective on how America deals with the subject of homosexuality in film, ‘Lust, Caution’ brought about an understanding of what NC-17 can mean and should mean.”
Major circuits like Regal and AMC had no issue with booking the film, Foley says. “They were conscious of what they were getting into and they were unafraid,” he says.
Both Focus and the circuits made sure it was booked into appropriate theaters — i.e., the right cities, the right neighborhoods.
Debunking conventional wisdom, most newspapers had no issue with accepting NC-17 ads, except for Salt Lake City. “The biggest problem the film faced was its running time. It restricted the film to one, maybe two good shows a day,” says Foley.
“Lust” was conceived as a partnership between East and West, mixing coin from River Road and Focus Features in the U.S. with that of Hai Sheng of China and Edko Films of Hong Kong. It was also Lee’s 10th collaboration with Schamus.
Just a few days ago, Lee confessed that he trimmed and tweaked the mainland Chinese version for political reasons too. He changed some of the dialogue of Wei Tang’s character near the end in order to make her intentions less ambiguous and more patriotic. “Go quickly,” for instance became, “Let’s go.”
That’s a degree of subtlety so fine that it would have been lost on many abroad. But Lee explained to an audience in Taipei last week: “The Chinese have thousands of years of experience in the craft of subtle wording and reading between the lines.”