Art is sexy - Is sexy art?

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Nudity and eroticism can ennoble or degrade, but the distinction is blurred in the urge to sell.

When "The Kiss" came out in 1986, it created a scandal in the country as the first movie showing direct lip-on-lip action.

While the kiss has become a tame affair these days, erotic scenes have continued to be controversial in Vietnamese films even as an increasing number of film-makers use greater degrees of exposed flesh than ever.

Not surprisingly, this has generated heated debate, accusations and counter-accusations of sleaziness, crass exploitation and provided the media and the public with more drama.

The issue flared up brightly in recent weeks when actress Duong Truong Thien Ly said she was withdrawing from the prestigious historical TV series Tran Thu Do (Imperial Regent Tran Thu Do) after being asked to do one erotic scene too many.

It is apparent that the line between art and vulgarity in erotic scenes has become thinner of late, and it is time for some stock taking and reevaluation.

Three or four decades ago, most films that won awards were themed around war, patriotism and immortal epics. The post doi moi has ushered in several changes in outlook that have accompanied changing living standards, and these are reflected on the big screen as well.

Sex is a natural activity, an intrinsic and basic part of human existence, so it is the general attitude toward its depiction that influences the use of erotic scenes in filmmaking. And as filmmaking is tied to the market and the dynamics of supply and demand, scenes are included both to titillate and to more effectively convey an artistic message.

This said, it seems that filmmakers in Vietnam have tilted the scales towards titillation, whether it is in state-invested movies like Rung den (Dark forest), Em muon lam nguoi noi tieng (I want to become a celebrity) and Song trong so hai (Living in fear) or private films like Chuong reo la ban (Shooting as the bell rings), De muon (Hired to bear), Khi dan ong co bau (When men are pregnant) and Dep tung centimet (Beauty in a centimeter).

Our films are in the mood for abusive sex scenes and actresses' naked bodies. This may motivate the audience to see the film, but the foreseen consequence is a dulling of the viewers' aesthetic sense, not to mention the bitterness and distaste they provoke among many discerning moviegoers.

One plainly uncomfortable feeling comes from seeing the actresses' discomfort in stripping for meaninglessly erotic scenes.

What they feel

Actresses typically find it difficult to refuse when a director requires them to be topless or naked: for the sake of art."

Mai Mai was reduced to tears when shooting for the movie Trung Uy (Lieutenant) as she was asked to wear clothes without any underwear.

Hong Anh, selected Best Actress at the Asia/Africa Dubai Film Festival for her portrayal of Hanh in Trang noi day gieng (Moon at the bottom of the well), says she is still confused and wary about acting in erotic scenes. Before accepting a shot, she has to discuss with the director and find common consent.

"You must discuss this sensitive problem and clear your mind before accepting the role, and not waiting until shooting time. The main problem is not how hot the scene is, but the security - not just at the shooting locale but also in terms of unreleased images of actresses."

My Uyen is also candid about the "sudden" hot scenes that actresses are forced to play.

"We can do anything for art, but we need to be protected," says Uyen.

Actresses are under a lot of pressure when acting in erotic scenes. They have to face the comments, evaluations and criticisms from both family and the public. In Asia in general and Vietnam is no exception, erotic scenes have the potential to disrupt and harm an actress's family and personal life.

It all comes down to individual choice, no doubt, whether it is the director or the actor, not to mention the audience. But in the absence of some honest soul-searching among all stakeholders in filmmaking, the lines between vulgarity and art are likely to be smudged badly, and it is society as a whole that will face the consequences.

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