Controversial from almost the second its trailer was released, Pulau, released in cinemas on March 9, is still being debated. In fact, the arguments on censorship and moral policing have gotten even louder. JEANNETTE GOON writes.
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The horror movie genre is no stranger to controversy, and Pulau, a Malaysian-directed and produced film about a group of young people who travel to a remote island and unleash a curse, has joined the ranks of controversial horror films.
Compared to examples such as The Exorcist (1973) that caused a media frenzy because of its “blasphemous” scenes — including one where the possessed child masturbates with a crucifix — and The Evil Dead (1981), banned in several countries for being too gory and obscene, Pulau seems considerably tamer.
What’s even more peculiar is the fact that it raised hackles and blood pressure even before its official release.
The reason? The film’s 2.35 min trailer, which was published on the WebTVAsia YouTube channel and alleged to contain “soft porn” scenes.
The horror genre, of course, has long used sexuality as a tool to elicit fear and discomfort. In 1 scene from the Pulau trailer, there is a close-up of former OnlyFans model Ms Puiyi lying on top of video creator-turned-actor Vikneswaran Veerasundar (better known as Vikarworld) as she says, “Let me show you a magic trick.” In another scene, they look like they’re about to embrace.
Both actors are fully clothed, though, and there’s nothing really explicit. Yet, a segment of the Malaysian public saw both scenes as not only unnecessary, but also disrespectful of Muslim values.
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The trailer, which hit a million views in just 9 days after its release on Jan 12, elicited a range of comments, including that Malaysians were being influenced by Western culture; that foreign values shouldn’t be made the norm, and importantly, that the film’s producers were simply using sexually-charged scenes to promote the movie.
But was it all really a marketing stunt to generate pre-release buzz?
Different platforms, different rules
Pulau, it’s important to note, had already been greenlit for public viewing by the Malaysian Film Censorship Board (LPF) prior to its trailer being released. However, the board’s claim is that it has no control over material published online.
It did, however, note that the trailer that had been submitted for approval by the film’s producers was significantly different from what was eventually published online.
The National Film Development Corporation (Finas) then proceeded to issue a warning letter to the producers over the trailer; leading to further questions about trailer guidelines and whether including scenes not featured in the movie can be construed as “false advertising”.
Here’s the thing not many knew, though — there are 2 versions of the film.
A tale of 2 versions
According to Pulau producer Fred Chong, the filmmakers have secured distribution of the film in Indonesia and Singapore. And that “international version” will contain 4 additional scenes that were cut based on comments by LPF and Finas.
The Pulau trailer that contained “steamy” scenes, thus, is for the international version of the film, which is mentioned in the video description on YouTube.
The trailer released on GSC Movie’s YouTube channel on Jan 16, 4 days after the 1st trailer premiered, is far tamer.
That explanation, however, doesn’t erase the controversy and the “soft porn” label, which has already resulted in economic losses, even as the film opened nationwide this week, on March 9.
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Of bans and financial loses
For as long as federal authorities have determined what can and can’t be screened in Malaysia, all states have abided.
This year, however, Terengganu decided to buck that trend and, despite Pulau having been greenlit for public screening with a P13 cert, has announced that it will be banning the film.
Yet a hit on box-office receipts, Chong says, is only a portion of the problem, as losses have also been incurred elsewhere.
In addition to not being able to screen the movie nationwide, the production has lost money due to having had to conduct another round of edits (costing “tens of thousands”, apparently) following the trailer controversy.
The filmmakers have also, allegedly, had to contend with sponsors pulling out. 1 by 1.
“We are suffering badly now. We have already lost half a million ringgit in sponsorship,” Chong says, adding that the film had cost about RM4mil to produce.
“My production (sic) is very consistent. I want to produce content that reflects the real Malaysia,” he says.
The reception Pulau — which was meant, he adds, to be a story about a diverse group of young Malaysians on a trip together — has received, however, doesn’t bode well for the future.
Playing Big Brother
A common misconception among the Malaysian public is that LPF and other media regulation bodies such as Finas stifle creativity. But the former’s role, at least, is very specific in that it is tasked with ensuring that films screened in Malaysia don’t go against “cultural sensitivities”.
1. Local film Pulau is a horror flick and is not a pornographic movie, as some people have claimed, says the Film Censorship Board.— BFM News (@NewsBFM) January 19, 2023
"Terdapat perbezaan antara kandungan treler yang dikongsikan di dalam media sosial dengan kandungan yang dikemukakan untuk penapisan." https://t.co/0iW3KZgulj pic.twitter.com/3Jgu2nMPW3
As one can imagine, that is as vague as it sounds; the way media is received is often open to interpretation and highly subjective.
In the case of Pulau, in fact, both LPF and Finas had approved the film for screening. However, the controversy stemmed from what a certain segment of Malaysian society considered to be culturally sensitive and inappropriate.
The thing is this — when assessing films and promotional materials, LPF follows a set of guidelines to be used in conjunction with the Film Censorship Act 2002. These guidelines mention some specific no-nos, such as scenes where humans or animals are tortured and close-ups of drug-taking, or displaying passages from the Quran in any other language besides Arabic.
However, there are many other points that may not be as clear-cut. For example, for films that touch on the subject of Islam, filmmakers are required to pay extra attention to elements that question, mock, or belittle Islam; are contrary to the opinions of most ulama (Islamic scholars); can cause doubt and public anxiety, and more.
Adherence to these guidelines can be difficult, as they are highly dependent on public perception. So although LPF is open to feedback and dialogue, it is also beholden to the public.
Lim, whose credits include indie flick The Joshua Tapes and Meter, the short film that was part of the 15Malaysia film project and starred a certain Khairy Jamaluddin as a taxi driver, says he recently submitted a film for approval, and the process is relatively straightforward.
In fact, all you have to do is fill up a form and then send the materials by mail to LPF.
Balancing freedom and compliance
LPF’s willingness to “preserve freedom” is also evident in its introduction of a new 5-level film classification system that took effect on Feb 1 this year.
Classifications are currently “U”, “P12” (parental guidance required for viewers under aged 12), “13” (for viewers 13 and above), “16” (for viewers 16 and above), and “18” (for viewers 18 and above).
The previous 3-level-plus classification system — U, P13, 18 — saw many filmmakers seeking U or P13 ratings despite “inappropriate” content, in order to gain greater viewership. Another problem, meanwhile, was that even when films were labelled 18, it often resulted in scenes being cut.
Film Classifications in Malaysia
From Feb 1, 2023
By introducing a new rating system, thus, the message is that the government, through LPF hopes to support the expansion of creativity in film and broadcasting, while maintaining compliance with existing guidelines.
Of course, film censorship is not unique to Malaysia. Countries with some of the biggest film industries have their own censorship guidelines and means of controlling the content put out.
South Korea, for example, has a 5-level rating system — G, PG-12, PG-15, R-18 and Restricted Rate. India has its Central Board of Film Certification, which assesses films based on criteria such as morality. And the US military, meanwhile, loans equipment out in exchange for having a say on film scripts.
Cut it out
“From a censorship standpoint, I have come to understand that a lot of issues that filmmakers have with LPF is its purview and where its authority comes from,” says Victoria Cheng, general manager of Projek Dialog, which organises Pesta Filem KITA and collaborates with content creators.
And there is also the fact that a large majority of films and TV series are in the Malay language.
“Most filmmakers, regardless of their film topic or ethnicity, often choose to make their films in the Malay language or to feature Malay-speaking actors,” Cheng explains, adding that she believes this influences perception of filmmakers with regard to what is permitted and/or restricted.
“This sentiment of permitted or restricted subject matter is further helped along by the role of LPF.”
The arguably bigger problem, however, is that LPF comes under the purview of the Home Ministry. And some believe that this has caused it to carry out its duties based on the policies of the government of the day.
Additionally, and as mentioned, public perception also plays a part.
Take Mentega Terbang, for example.
The indie film, which focuses on a Muslim teen’s curiosity about faith and her exploration of other religions when her mother takes ill, garnered some attention upon its release in late 2021 yet largely slipped under the radar.
This year, however, the film was put on streaming platform Viu and subsequently, accused in a post on Facebook about it containing “elements of blasphemy against Islam”, which was when all hell broke loose.
Every day has brought new drama. And the result of all that is that while LPF has no jurisdiction over the movie as it was screened online, and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) being a multimedia regulator doesn’t have the authority to censor films, the pressure was so intense that Mentega Terbang eventually ended up being made unavailable for streaming.
Who’s in charge?
The issue, however, is far from over.
And as Bukit Aman investigates the case under Section 298A and Section 505(b) of the Penal Code (for causing disharmony with regard to religion, among others), and Section 233 of the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 (which relates to content that’s intended to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass), serious concern has been expressed over the ramifications of the latest kerfuffle.
A joint statement by a coalition of Malaysian civil society groups, creative organisations, and individuals — among them Aliran, Amnesty International Malaysia and Freedom Film Network — questions, for one, if the response and reaction have been unfair and whether or not it’s time for Malaysians to self-regulate.
“The government’s response so far will have a chilling effect on the Malaysian film and creative industry. It will discourage filmmakers and content creators from producing much-needed critical content that is representative of our diverse realities,” the statement reads.
And just as concerning, the coalition says, is the fact that Mentega Terbang’s filmmakers have reported being harassed and hit with threats of physical violence in the wake of the controversy, yet find themselves with, apparently, no recourse.
“… this inaction sends the message that threats of violence are acceptable if one feels offended. This creates a culture of fear that endangers filmmakers and artists,” it says.
The group isn’t suggesting, however, that there should be no criticism, but rather that views should be expressed in a non-violent and peaceful manner.
But perhaps, most crucially, it suggests that the government’s Malaysia Madani policy should entail resources and energy being channelled into building a society “where adults are exposed, encouraged and empowered to self-regulate and make informed decisions based on classifications and their own respective tastes, values and principles”.
In other words, it may be time for us, Malaysians, to be in charge of what we watch and make up our own minds.
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