KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Teck Tan's friends said he was mad to
attempt a feature film on young Malaysians' battles with life, love
and religion in their multi-racial, melting pot of a country.
Bloodied by local censors' treatment of his award-winning work, and cinema takings hit by the pirate video trade, the 39-year-old director of "Spinning Gasing" fears they may have been right.
"They might as well not have passed the film as far as I'm concerned. With 25 cuts it jars, it affects the story, it even affects the box office," he told Reuters in an interview after the end of the movie's recent run in local cinemas.
The beautifully shot English-language film, featuring a wannabe band stumbling from well-to-do birthday parties in suburban Kuala Lumpur to the rural piety of Peninsular Malaysia's east coast, was very nearly banned outright.
"Spinning Gasing" -- a reference to traditional Malay spinning tops and an allusion to Malaysia's rapid pace of change -- turns on long-held but unrequited love between band impresario Harry and bass guitarist Yati.
"Our New Year's present was a letter from the censor board saying that they had banned the film for quite a few reasons, primarily because it touched on racial and religious sensitivities and was not a film that should be seen by Malaysians," Tan said.
The decision was overturned on appeal but not before censors had their way with the scalpel to excise a whole scene showing religious police raid a hotel in search of khalwat (close proximity) offenders -- unmarried Muslims guilty of illegal intimacy with the opposite sex.
"The 'khalwat' put everything into perspective," said Tan, referring to relations between Yati, a Malay Muslim woman, and Harry, a young Chinese man who has abandoned his faith.
Most of the Southeast Asian nation's 23 million population are Malay Muslims who are largely conservative and protective over their faith. Around a quarter are Buddhist Chinese and about eight percent Indians, who are generally Hindu.
Malaysian media are heavily influenced by the government, which preaches stability above all else in a country yet to bury the ghosts of bloody riots between Malays and Chinese in 1969.
The censors routinely remove or prohibit scenes of explicit sexual nature, swearing and offensive references to race and religion from movies as well as television and radio programmes.
Most difficult for Tan to accept was censors' treatment of a restrained love scene reminiscent of "The Age of Innocence" or Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Liaisons", where Harry gently tends Yati's hair as they bathe in the sea.
"There are some pivotal scenes in the film, that make the film, and that was one of them," laments Tan.
"Those close ups were crucial to understanding what they felt for one another -- they wanted to but they couldn't."
Religious restraints on Yati, played by local stage actress Ellie Suriaty Omar, who was best actress at the Cinemaya Festival of Asian Cinema 2001 in New Delhi, meant that for the relationship to stand a chance, Harry must convert to Islam and marry her.
The alternatives were to walk away or to conduct the affair in secret with no hope for the long-term.
"I have been told that the film has offended sections of the Malay community," Tan said.
"To them, they ask why is it an issue? Yati should have convinced Harry to convert and then they would have got married but for me as a Chinese, it is an issue," he said.
"These are issues we have to deal with, there's no point in saying they are non-issues. If we are to be a mature nation, we have to tackle these issues head on."
Assaulted by Western influences at home, and with thousands of students going abroad for their university education, Malaysians face a cocktail of confusion familiar to many young people in developed and rapidly developing nations.
Clubland drugs, homosexuality, mixed race parentage -- all feature in Tan's film, with the inevitable cuts ensuing.
Quite apart from the artistic impact, Tan bemoans the financial loss from potential viewers resorting to pirated video discs of the uncensored version.
"I got very sick of people telling me: 'I'm sorry Teck, I won't see it in a cinema because it's been massacred by the censors. I'll buy the pirate VCD because it will be uncut'."
The project, which earned the Netpac Award Special Mention at the 2000 Hawaii International Film Festival, has yet to recoup costs put at "under 2.5 million ringgit ($660,000)", all funded by private investors, Tan says.
"It's still too early, we still have quite a few markets to explore," he said, saying neighbours Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines all offer potential if a distributor could be found.
Asked whether his "Spinning Gasing" experience had cauterised his movie-making ambitions, Tan was equivocal. "Yes, I would like to make another and yes I am planning to, but with all the disincentives, I would have to be crazy too.
"I have not made up my mind, I'm doing TV commercials for the moment."