Boy meets boy. Boy falls in love with boy. Boy has a sex-change procedure in a misguided attempt to please his lover. Boy regrets his decision, moves back to hometown and falls in love with a girl.
The plot of … Dalam Botol (… In a Bottle), Malaysia’s first feature film with gay lead characters, is causing a stir in the Muslim-majority country, where consensual sodomy is illegal and depictions of homosexuality in pop culture are taboo.
The film opens next Thursday, but has already provoked the ire of religious organisations. The youth wing leader of the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) called it a “shocking” attempt to promote gay culture.
Malaysia’s censorship board advised the film’s producer, Malaysian novelist Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, to cut a nude scene and drop the word Anu – the Malay word for penis – from the start of the title. “I don’t understand what all of the fuss is about. This is a love story. What I am doing is not wrong,” he said.
The film will screen in 52 cinemas throughout the country and cost about RM1m (£202,000) to make, which is low-budget by Malaysian standards. It is based on the life of Raja Azmi’s friend who regretted having a sex-change procedure. She said: “If my film has a message, it’s please don’t change yourself for love. My friend has suffered so much, and I don’t want other people to suffer like him.”
This message has found little resonance with the country’s handful of gay activists, who have joined the religious authorities in criticising the film, although for very different reasons. Alex, 28, a financial analyst who blogs anonymously about gay issues and asked that his real name be withheld, said that while the film’s groundbreaking depiction of gay characters could be seen as a sign of progress, he worried it would reinforce stereotypes in Malaysian culture. “The ending is very negative. Having the main character regret being gay and falling in love with a woman is not going to help our image problem here,” he said.
Malaysia’s film censorship rules require gay and transgendered characters to regret their actions and learn from supposed mistakes, guidelines to which … Dalam Botol had to conform in order to receive screening permission.
“This is not the Brokeback Mountain of Malaysia. It presents LGBT people as depressed and confused,” said Yuki Choe, 35, a transsexual activist in Kuala Lumpur. “Malaysian society is trying to shame us. But whether we like it or not, this is a Muslim country, and it’s difficult to be open about your sexuality here.”
In December, a gay Muslim man, Azwan Ismail, reported receiving death threats after posting a video on YouTube calling on Malaysian gay people to be more confident. A prominent Muslim cleric called the clip insulting to Islam.
In October, PAS urged authorities to cancel a concert by gay American singer Adam Lambert. The show went ahead, but party activists protested outside.
Malaysia’s anti-sodomy law, a hold-over from the British colonial administration, provides a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a lashing.
Popular opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim is currently on trial for the crime, in what many Malaysians consider a politically motivated attempt to end his career. In general though, prosecutions are rare as long as gay people remain discreet, said Andrew Khoo, chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council human rights committee.
But the Anwar case and … Dalam Botol have thrust the issue of gay rights into the spotlight, he said. “The government can’t run away from homosexuality. We’re happy that the film is pushing the issue out into the open. But the problem is that the government, through the film censorship board, is controlling how the issue is being discussed.”
In recent years, a small gay rights movement has emerged to talk about the issue on its own terms. “It is very early days,” said Kevin Baker of the PT Foundation, a Malaysian HIV charity. “Hopefully this will continue and help more LGBT people feel comfortable about their sexuality.”
Despite some Malaysians believing that the film has an agenda, its director, Khir Rahman, said it had no overt message. “Our goal was to tell the story as honestly as possible. If you want to get more out of it, that’s up to you,” he said.
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