Next Thursday sees a landmark in Malaysian cinema, Dalam Botol (In a Bottle) will be the country’s first feature film with gay lead characters. Great news you may initially think but the plot makes for grim reading. As the Guardian succinctly puts it:
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 film’s release is facing criticism from all sides, it’s being hailed as an attempt to promote gay life by religious groups and a negative portrayal of homosexuality by the country’s few outspoken gay activists.
This is a country which still enforces an anti-sodomy law and depictions of gay culture in the mainstream are frowned upon. This was proven only last week when Malaysian radio censored the lyrics of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way as it promotes gay culture. The country’s cinematic censor is to be blamed for the plot as it dictates that LGBT characters must regret and take actions to amend their way of life. Pretty shocking stuff but it should be remembered that it wasn’t too long ago that Western film-making had equally restrictive laws concerning LGBT depiction.
Hollywood’s Hays Code dictated what was and what wasn’t acceptable for American films between 1930-1968. Unsurprisingly, homosexuality was one the topics deemed unacceptable. Closer to home we have the British Board of Film Classification which similarly thought homosexual depictions weren’t acceptable for the British audience until the late 50’s / early 60’s following the Wolfendon Report report that dictated: “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”
Despite Dalam Botol’s almost universal criticism at least it has once again brought gay rights to the forefront of political discussion and could potentially open the door for more positive depictions of LGBT characters in films in the country’s future.