Why NC-17 matters

Reel Blog   

Ang Lee has cut approximately 30 minutes from his Venice Film Festival winner Lust, Caution in order for it to play on Chinese screens.

China, which has no rating system requires all films to be suitable for all audiences or it will not be screened. According to Variety, the film may also be trimmed for Hong Kong audiences, which has a rating system, and a rough equivalent to the R rating:

(T)he III classification is the territory’s only one with mandatory effect. It gives theater box offices the power to check IDs, requires that promotional materials are screened by the censors and that videos are sold in sealed plastic wrapping.

However, government censors may still insist upon cuts in order for a film to qualify for that rating.

No such rating option exists in the Chinese mainland, where either everyone gets to see a movie, from toddler to teen to pensioner, or no one does. Ang Lee’s last pic “Brokeback Mountain” was banned in mainland China for its homosexual content.

The lack of a film classification system means the only tools at the censor’s disposal are cutting entire scenes or simply banning a movie, both drastic steps when one considers that script approval was granted before a movie goes into production.

China’s main movie watchdog, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television refuses to introduce the rating system as it believes that if a movie is unsuitable for children, then it’s unsuitable for adults too.

“Authorities told me that there was no film rating system on the mainland so they let me cut it. Children are able to watch it on the mainland,” Lee said.

So what’s the problem with an NC-17 rating? The film maker need not cut a frame from his or her film, it may be shown in any theater without legal restriction, media will advertise it. The only restriction is that children under s 17 may not attend.

Critics say that the NC-17 inhibits the commercial prospects of a film and that many theaters will not play a film so rated. But the NC-17 merely reflects the nature of the content and theaters and audiences judge their interest in seeing or screening films on that basis every day. Would a movie theater in say, Provo, Utah, book the film with the same content and an R rating? Would a sizable audience go see it?

Thanks to Ang Lee and James Schamus at Focus, we’ll get the opportunity to see how a film intended for adults and not children – and honestly labelled as such – performs in the market. Let’s hope American audiences, theaters and media respond as forthrightly.