Sex and violence are not always gratuitous, directors say

by Duane Dudek

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

12 November 2007

Lust, Caution 

What has more sex and violence than an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show”?

The multiplex.

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Lust, Caution (Se, jie)

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Tang Wei, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Joan Chen, Wang Lee-Hom

(Focus Features)
US theatrical: 28 Sep 2007 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 4 Jan 2008 (General release)

Review [5.Oct.2007]
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No Country for Old Men

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson

US theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 18 Jan 2008 (General release)

Review [9.Nov.2007]

You can pass through any neighborhood in America and not know what goes on behind the closed doors of the houses that line the street. But pop into any theater in America and you’ll find films featuring stories and behaviors that test the standards of the communities in which they are shown.

The vast digital wasteland has taken the wind out of the debate over whether society is a reflection of what it sees on the screen simply by being so pervasive. The options seem limited to staring in disbelief or ignoring it at your peril.

While content does not have to be crude or violent to be artistically challenging, certain members of the creative community regard breaking taboos as something of a job description. But while some are making intellectual inquiries into and commentaries on the human condition, others are acting in juvenile defiance of the establishment.

In either case, they risk cutting off their noses at the box office by doing so. While a PG-13-rated film casts a wide net, an R-rated film is an eye of a needle through which fewer camels can pass.

And the success of PG-13-rated fare like “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?” and “The Game Plan” suggests that audiences are voting with their dollars.

“People are looking for escapist fare,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Media by Numbers. R-rated films “are not doing well at the box office. They may be great films and have gotten rave reviews, but ... box-office success goes down with the rating.”

There are exceptions: “Some R-rated films have been the biggest-grossing films of all time,” he said.

Raunchy comedies like “Superbad” and “Knocked Up” topped this summer’s box office. “Saw IV,” the latest in a series of torture movies, was the highest grossing film two weekends ago. And the violent R-rated “American Gangster,” with Denzel Washington, was the same last weekend.

But there is a difference between gratuitous violence and exploitative sex and the way boutique films like “No Country for Old Men,” “Eastern Promises” and “Lust, Caution” grapple with transgressive material. In recent conversations, the makers and stars of those three films defended and explained their films.

“Let me ask your question to you,” challenged Tang Wei, the Chinese model making her film debut in Ang Lee’s political thriller “Lust, Caution,” when asked to explain why the film’s sex and nude scenes were necessary. (The film is rated NC-17.) Sometimes looking to a translator to explain questions or answers, the actress understood enough English and often felt strongly enough to frame a response on her own.

“If without love scenes,” she asked, “can you understand the film?”

In “Lust, Caution,” which is set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II and based on the novella by Eileen Chang, director Ang Lee has crafted a graphic work that portrays sex as an act of conquest and surrender during wartime. Tang Wei plays a college student who seduces a member of the collaborationist government, played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, in order to assassinate him.

The story “is about man-woman relationship in an occupied and being-occupied fashion, at a time (when the country) was occupied,” Lee said last month.

Lee joked that while author Chang “didn’t write `Lady Chatterly’s Lover,’” her description of female sexual psychology and equating “patriotism and the sexual climax of a woman” is very daring for Chinese literature. He said he took the book’s themes much deeper and made Tang’s sexual charade “something that has to survive the scrutiny of her interrogator” who “seeks the truth in her, sometimes through pain.”

The results “trigger in him the subject of love,” he said. “And to me that’s quite poignant.”

Lee described himself as shy and said that choreographing the chaste same-sex fumblings in “Brokeback Mountain” “was a big endeavor for me.”

The nudity and psychosexual convolutions in “Lust, Caution” were even more challenging.

“I’m still shy,” he said. “I just did it with bigger effort” in “Lust, Caution,” which is currently in release.

Tang said the sex scenes were filmed over 11 days on a closed set.

“Just the (director of photography), Ang, Tony and me. At first I feel nervous, but when the camera is rolling, I never really think about it. I am the character and what she think is what I think, and what she do is what I want to do.”

Lee said he had different “tasks” set for the two sex scenes.

“The first one is (about) the male psychology.” While the cruelty of Leung’s character is alluded to, “this is the only time we see a little bit of what he is.”

The second, more languorous scene “is about the way sex leads to perhaps the feeling of love, intimacy and truth.”

The sex scenes are pivotal, Lee said. “They anchor emotion and feeling to the movie.” And to edit “even five, 10 seconds” or “use a different take of some moment” to get an R rating, “just feel different to me. They’re just seconds, but it means a lot to me.”

Ironically, however, because the film “has to be for a general audience” in China, the sex scenes are edited out for release there.

“It’s the same movie,” Lee insists. “It doesn’t change the tone. It doesn’t change the meaning. But it changes the weight of the movie.”

“It’s not as exciting,” he admitted. “It’s lighter.”

The only thing harder than watching the brutality in the new Coen brothers’ film, “No Country for Old Men” - based on the story by Cormac McCarthy - is getting the brothers to talk about it. Or anything else. They are so reclusive as to suggest social anxiety.

“It’s true discomfort,” said Josh Brolin, who stars in the film with Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones.

“Ethan (Coen) and I have been to dinner and he’s brought a book. And it’s not an affectation.”

At a recent press conference, Ethan Coen compared being asked to explain the film’s meaning “to that scene in `The Third Man’ where they plunk Joseph Cotten in front of a book club and ask him what he thinks about the stream of consciousness.”

Yet he grudgingly stated the obvious: that the film, now hitting theaters, is “an adaptation of a very violent novel” and tried to be an accurate reflection of it. But “it’s not like we have opinions about violence in general ... as far as movies are concerned.”

“No Country for Old Men” is about a laconic Texan, played by Brolin, who plays a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a remorseless killer, played by Bardem. Jones is a sheriff dealing with the escalating body count.

Unlike the violence in films like “Saw,” “which numb you to the realities of death,” said Brolin, the violence in “No Country for Old Men” “lends to the emotional weight” of the story. He noted “the suddenness of a particular character dying in this film, that there was no caressing within that. And that’s what I love about this movie. Because that’s the way it really is. One day you’re talking to a person, and one day they’re gone.”

“I love the truth and severity of that.”

For Bardem, it was important his character not be seen as a psychopath, which would excuse his actions. “We have to relate to him somehow in some funny way, where we can see some little human hint, where we say, `I share that with him.’ And then we go, `I share that with him?’”

While Brolin does not think the film is a morality play, Bardem thinks “there are other things going on here.”

“This movie goes beyond what we see. There is a statement here. And whatever statement there is depends on whoever sees it.”

“But it has to do with the lack of meaning of violence itself,” Bardem said. “And how once you call violence” to resolve something, “violence shows up, destroys everything, creates pain and misery, doesn’t solve anything, and goes.”

Violence has long been part of Canadian director David Cronenberg’s oeuvre - from “Crash,” about people aroused by auto crashes and injuries, to his horror films “Videodrome” and “Scanners.” In a recent interview, Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, who stars in Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” and in his latest film, “Eastern Promises,” were quick to defend their portrayal of violence as more responsible than that of a typical movie.

“And you can say, `Throat slitting? How is that responsible?’” Mortensen said of the film’s opening scene.

“Because he’s honest about it. It’s not pretty and he doesn’t take it lightly.”

Despite such harsh scenes and male frontal nudity, “Eastern Promises” earned an R rating. It is a frequent criticism of the film ratings system that sexual content is rated more harshly than violence. Ang Lee said this is done “for economic reasons. To get the male audience.”

But Cronenberg believes it is not so cut and dried.

“I know it’s famously said the (ratings board) will allow violence and not sex, but in fact it depends on ... the context of the movie.”

In “A History of Violence,” Mortensen plays a small-town man with a secret past, and in “Eastern Promises,” he plays a Russian mobster in London.

“People say (Cronenberg’s) movies are brutal,” Mortensen said.

“But the reason people say that is those scenes stick with them. They’re in-your-face, realistic, and you see the consequences.”

Cronenberg said he finds films like the “Bourne Identity” trilogy, about a trained killer with amnesia, a more disturbing use of movie violence because “you don’t see anything.”

In such films “the audience is let off the hook by not having to experience the destruction of the human body.” And Cronenberg believes that such violence diminishes “what is a purely physical” act into “an aesthetic” and dehumanizing event.

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