When 'Lust' Meets Caution, Is It Still Art?

Gwen Stefani i i

Gwen Stefani put her signature look under wraps after Muslim students argued it wouldn't fly in Malaysia. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
Gwen Stefani

Gwen Stefani put her signature look under wraps after Muslim students argued it wouldn't fly in Malaysia.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
Tang Wei in 'Lust, Caution'

Looks can thrill: Tang Wei in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. Lee was forced to strip out some of the film's more explicit moments for the version to be released in China. Chan Kam Chuen/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Chan Kam Chuen/Focus Features

Skin Onscreen, On the Rise

A raft of revealing films has critic Bob Mondello thinking about how Hollywood -- and its audiences -- handle movie nudity.

Ian McKellen and William Gaunt in 'King Lear.' i i

Lear cover-up: For the sake of Singaporean sensibilities, actor Ian McKellen (left, with colleague William Gaunt) didn't shed his rags altogether. Manual Harlan hide caption

itoggle caption Manual Harlan
Ian McKellen and William Gaunt in 'King Lear.'

Lear cover-up: For the sake of Singaporean sensibilities, actor Ian McKellen (left, with colleague William Gaunt) didn't shed his rags altogether.

Manual Harlan

When performers go out on world tours, they're often confronted with a key decision: Should they alter their work to conform to local standards?

In other words, is something lost in translation if Gwen Stefani performs with her midriff covered?

When Stefani appeared in Malaysia last August, she agreed not to wear revealing costumes. The question of her attire arose after Muslim students protested that her usual presentation was not suitable for Malaysian culture. Stefani covered up, though she called it "a major sacrifice."

And what about British actor Ian McKellen? He's in the midst of a triumphant tour as Shakespeare's King Lear. In London and New York, McKellen appeared nude as the mad king wandering the moors.

But not in Singapore. McKellen told reporters there that the restriction seemed "a little bit silly." He didn't particularly mind complying, and he didn't let cultural sensitivities stop him from protesting anti-gay policies on television during his stay there.

Censorship is not unfamiliar to novelist Laila Lalami. She grew up watching censored movies in Morocco. At first, she says, she thought artists like McKellen and Stefani were compromising their work.

But then she reconsidered. If these artists had refused to yield, Lalami realized, the public would not have seen them perform at all.

"Then the greater good is to actually perform," Lalami says. "And so what if Gwen Stefani didn't wear a halter top? She wears enough of them all the time."

In a way, that's the logic that director Ang Lee brought to bear on his latest movie. Lust, Caution set in China during World War II, depicts a tortured affair.

Lee defied norms in the U.S. by releasing the film here with an NC-17 rating. But in China, films are unrated and all pictures must be deemed suitable for general audiences. So Lee agreed to make cuts.

It was a painful decision. With about 9 minutes missing, his work loses some of its emotional impact, he feels.

"I also worry [that] without this impact, in the later part of the movie you might think the actor overacts in some scenes," Lee says.

But Lee reasoned that getting to make his version of the film in itself was something of a miracle. He believes audiences in China know that another version of Lust, Caution exists. And they will find it, if only on a bootlegged DVD.

"A full version exists," Lee says. "That matters a lot to me."

Of course, filmmakers constantly battle to get an acceptable rating for their films in the United States. Lee will have to create an R-rated version of Lust, Caution for release on DVD in this country. Big-box stores like Wal-Mart demand it.

"If you want art to be absolutely pure, absolutely untainted by anything, chances are the art is going to belong only to you and to nobody else," Lalami says.

If artists want their work disseminated around the world, the author says, they'll have to contend with the demands of the marketplace, the sensitivities of other cultures or a combination of the two.

"The minute that the art is produced and put out into the world, and is put out by these corporations, then there are certain accommodations that are made in the process," she says.

The danger, Lalami says, arises when artists allow such considerations to creep into their process — when they censor their work while it's still being created.

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