Tue, Mar 11, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: After Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee?

Following months of pressure from rights advocates and high-profile celebrities, film director Steven Spielberg last month opted out of his role as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics, a move that was praised by many -- except those in Beijing.

As a filmmaker with a conscience who gave us, among others, Schindler's List and Munich (the Olympic link couldn't be more obvious), Spielberg's association with a government that has no compunction in supporting the genocidal regime in Sudan was also proving too damaging to his image.

But while Spielberg has been the focus of all the bad publicity, other advisers to the Games have managed to avoid pressure -- and one of them is Taiwan's Ang Lee (李安).

Lee's reasons to reconsider his role as an arts and culture consultant for the Games (under Chinese director Zhang Yimou [張藝謀]) are perhaps more numerous than Spielberg's. While the Hollywood director pulled out over the crisis in Sudan alone, Lee is a son of Taiwan, a land that every day is threatened by Chinese predation and whose existence as a democracy Beijing holds in contempt.

Beijing's agenda hit closer to home over the weekend when the government announced that Chinese actress Tang Wei (湯唯) had been blacklisted because of her role in Lee's award-winning Lust, Caution, which Beijing said "beautified" the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. (Ironically, Hong Kong-born Tony Leung Chiu-wai [梁朝偉], who plays a Japanese collaborator in the movie, has so far been spared Beijing's tar and feathers.)

In and of itself, this should be sufficient to dispel any illusion that art and politics do not mix, for in Beijing's world, politics -- World War II, Sino-Japanese relations -- are being used to destroy an artist's livelihood.

While artists may seek to transcend political differences, they should never lose sight of the fact that they, too, have responsibilities and that art, even in its "purest" form, cannot be apolitical. As role models, artists of Lee's caliber are in a far better position to fire imaginations -- and ultimately influence views -- than most politicians. Consequently, by choosing to work with Beijing or by remaining silent in the face of injustice, Lee could be seen to be rationalizing Chinese repression.

As George Orwell observed: The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

And now, should he remain silent on Beijing's attack on one of its own, Lee would send a signal that it is acceptable for a government to use politics to violate freedom of expression and dictate what artists can and cannot address in their work.

In fact, by accepting Beijing's invitation to serve as an adviser to the Games, Lee was telling the world that it was negotiable for China to ban his previous movie, Brokeback Mountain.

If genocide in Sudan, the jailing of Chinese dissidents, the suppression of Taiwan and molestation of Tibet are not enough to change Lee's mind, then perhaps this latest overt attack against one of his creations and one of his stars will be the last straw.

Lee now has no choice but to put aside the "softly, softly" approach, stand by Tang's side and follow in Spielberg's footsteps.

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