When 'Lust' Meets Caution, Is It Still Art? Director Ang Lee had to cut nine minutes from his racy Lust, Caution before the film could be released in China — and performers as diverse as Gwen Stefani and Ian McKellen have recently been asked to cover up rather than offend local audiences.
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When 'Lust' Meets Caution, Is It Still Art?

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

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

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Big name artists and performers who take their work around the world have a decision to make as they play to varying cultures. Should they alter their work to conform to foreign standards? A number of artists choose to change their work to have it seen in as many places as possible. Examples include Ang Lee who cut some of his latest movie "Lust, Caution" for release in China. And singer Gwen Stefani who kept her clothes on in Malaysia.

Here's NPR's Kim Masters.

KIM MASTERS: Is something lost in translation if Gwen Stefani performs with her limbs covered?

(Soundbite of "Wind it Up")

Ms. GWEN STEFANI (Singer): (Singing) Get in line now. Wind it up. Wind it up.

MASTERS: When Stefani appeared in Malaysia last August, she agreed not to wear revealing costume. 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 calls it a major sacrifice.

Ms. STEFANI: (Singing) Yodellay, yodallay, yodal-low. You've got to let the beat get under your skin.

MATERS: And what about British actor Sir Ian McKellen?

(Soundbite of play "King Lear")

Mr. IAN McKELLEN (Actor): (As King Lear) Most are in gratitude.

MASTERS: McKellen is in the midst of a triumphant tour as King Lear.

(Soundbite of play "King Lear")

Mr. McKELLEN: (As King Lear) Let me not be mad. Not mad. Sweet heaven, keep me in temper.

MASTERS: 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 Singapore's anti-gay policies on television during his visit.

Mr. McKELLEN: I'm a gay man, and I gather that's not a very popular thing to be, although maybe the laws are going to change and I do hope they do change quickly. But I've been looking for a gay bar, if there's such a thing. So that's what I've been looking for.

MASTERS: 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.

Ms. LAILA LALAMI (Novelist): The greater good is to actually perform. So what if Gwen Stefani didn't wear a halter top? Lord knows she wears enough of them all the time.

(Soundbite of music)

MASTERS: In a way, that's the logic of director Ang Lee when it comes to his latest movie "Lust, Caution." The film, set in China during World War II, depicts a tortured affair.

(Soundbite of movie "Lust, Caution")

Unidentified Actress: (Chinese spoken)

MASTERS: Ang Lee is defying norms in the U.S. by releasing the film 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 nine minutes missing, he feels his work loses some of its emotional impact.

Mr. ANG LEE (Director, "Lust, Caution"): I also worry about without this impact, the later part of the movie you might think the actor overacts a little bit in some scenes.

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

Mr. LEE: A full version is being seen, it exists. That matters a lot to me.

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

Ms. LALAMI: 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.

MASTERS: Novelist Laila Lalami says if artists want their work disseminated in the world, they will have to contend with the demands of the marketplace, the sensitivities of other cultures or a combination of the two.

Ms. LALAMI: The minute that the art is produced, if you will, and put out into the world, and is put out by these corporations, distributed by these corporations, then there are certain accommodations that are made in the process.

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

Kim Masters, NPR News.

BLOCK: Plenty of Hollywood artists have clearly not been censoring themselves lately according to NPR movie critic Bob Mondello. You'll find his thoughts on movie nudity and how it's changing at our Web site, npr.org.

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