KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Muslim-majority Malaysia's first gay romance movie opens with playful scenes of a bare-chested male couple massaging each other on a beach at night — but their euphoria soon evaporates in a story that seeks to placate both conservative government censors and contemporary audiences hungry for edgy material.
"Dalam Botol," or "In A Bottle," is a Malay-language film about a man who gets a sex change operation because he thought it would satisfy his male lover, but ends up regretting it. The film earned applause from movie bloggers invited to its first public screening Wednesday, three months before its scheduled nationwide release.
"Even five years ago, we wouldn't have been able to make it," Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, the film's producer and writer, said after the screening. "I'm glad that at this time, at this moment, we can show it."
Malaysia's government-run cinema censorship board has long frowned on sexually provocative films. As recently as last year, the board banned British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's "Bruno," accusing it of promoting homosexuality with its portrayal of a flamboyant fashion journalist.
But public pressure for the board to tolerate mature themes is leading to looser restrictions. Censors now say depictions of homosexuality like those in "Dalam Botol" are no longer barred — as long as being gay isn't condoned.
"If the movie had tried to glamorize the lifestyle of a gay person, it would be against our current standard guidelines," censorship board chief Mohamad Hussain Shafie told The Associated Press this week. "But the character repents in the end. We can say it is in line with our social values."
The slow-paced, melancholy film bears influences of foreign gay-themed movies, including the Oscar-winning "Brokeback Mountain" and Hong Kong's "Happy Together."
But it takes far fewer risks — its heterosexual male leads, who include a 26-year-old making his film debut, never kiss. The most explicit acknowledgment that the characters have sex is when one gets out of bed in his underwear while the other sleeps, presumably naked, beneath a blanket.
Nevertheless, there are raw, poignant scenes that capture the realities of being gay in a country where homosexuality is effectively outlawed. Though prosecutions are rare, sodomy is punishable by 20 years in prison.
Raja Azmi said the film is about a close friend who had sex change surgery in Thailand 25 years ago and wanted to warn young men not to make the same decision. In "Dalam Botol," the main character is wracked with remorse after his operation prompts his partner to abandon him.
"It's not an anti-gay movie. I believe it's not wrong to be gay, but it's wrong to have a sex change," Raja Azmi said.
Malaysia has no formal gay rights groups, but some gay men have mixed feelings about the film.
"I want to see gay characters in local movies, but it's wrong to make it seem like we're all so tragic and depressed," said a 30-year-old financial analyst who asked to be identified only as Mark. "Of course, I hope that someday, our society will be open enough to have a Malaysian movie about two gay men who meet, fall in love and live happily ever after."
The film — which has been approved for a February 2011 release to audiences older than 18 — was carefully vetted by censors from the start.
Raja Azmi submitted her script to the board before filming it. She was told to change the original title — "Anu Dalam Botol," or "Penis in a Bottle" — and remove an intimate bedroom conversation between the male characters.
Although "Dalam Botol" has potential for Malaysian acting awards, it might not lure local audiences who favor comedies and horror movies. Raja Azmi claimed she doesn't mind if it fails to recoup its production and marketing costs, estimated to slightly exceed 1 million ringgit ($320,000).
Some of the 30 bloggers at Wednesday's screening were cautiously optimistic.
"It's something new, something different," said 23-year-old university student Aoron Mikael. "And of course, all the controversy will make people curious to watch it."