Malaysia's first gay-themed romance film has become a swift box-office success, attracting curious cinema audiences who rarely get to see movies centered on sexuality because of strict censorship in this Muslim-majority nation, its producer said Wednesday.
The Malay-language movie, called "Dalam Botol," or "In a Bottle," grossed slightly more than 1 million ringgit ($330,000) in its first five days, recouping its production and marketing costs of 970,000 ringgit ($320,000), said Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, who wrote and produced the film.
The movie depicts a Muslim man who has a sex change operation because he believes it will please his male lover, but his effort ends in heartbreak for both of them. Some gay rights advocates have called it an unfairly negative portrayal of gay and transgender people.
Part of the movie's financial success is likely due to intense advance publicity, including earlier speculation that the government-run film censorship board might ban it.
The box-office results "prove that Malaysian audiences can handle such movies, that they're more open and not so conservative anymore," Raja Azmi told The Associated Press. "I hope it'll inspire more films that are meaningful and linked to the reality of people's lives."
Raja Azmi declined to predict how much the movie might ultimately make. According to the government's film development agency, "Dalam Botol" has the lowest production budget of seven Malaysian movies that opened so far this year and is the fifth to breach the million-ringgit mark.
Raja Azmi said "Dalam Botol" is a neutral work that is not meant to support or slam gays, stressing it is based on the experiences of her friend who had sex change surgery in Thailand. It stars heterosexual actors who are seen bare-chested together on a beach and in bed, but the movie only shows them hugging without any kissing.
Malaysian gay rights activist Pang Khee Teik voiced concerns that the movie might be perceived as an effort to discourage people who have valid reasons to undergo sex change surgeries.
"Many of us Malaysian (gays, lesbians and transgenders) have absolutely no regrets being who we are," said Pang, co-founder of the Malaysian sexual rights awareness group "Seksualiti Merdeka," or "Sexuality Independence."
Pang reiterated his group's criticism of what it considered "absurd and unrealistic" censorship rules that permit portrayals of homosexuality as long as it is not condoned. Sodomy is punishable by 20 years in prison in Malaysia, though prosecutions are rare.
Raja Azmi had to submit her script to censors before filming. She was advised to change the original title _ "Anu Dalam Botol," or "Penis in a Bottle" _ and remove a bedroom conversation.
Raja Azmi said her next film will likely be a "fantasy drama" about a young man who has relationships with older partners, both male and female, but whose closest friend is a fish in a bowl that suddenly transforms into a man.