Malaysia’s infamous reputation for censorship or banning of international movies is nothing new.
The most recent censorship controversy involves the Disney live action remake of the animated classic, Beauty and the Beast.
On Tuesday, the Film Censorship Board (LPF) said it had ordered a scene to be cut from the movie because it concerned a “gay moment” that had become a “sensitive” issue.
The board also approved the screening of Beauty and the Beast in local cinemas with a P13 rating, which means that children under 13 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
However, Walt Disney Pictures, in an official response, said the movie has to be screened uncut or it will not be released in Malaysia at all. For the time being, the local Disney office has maintained the position that the movie’s opening has been “postponed” and not cancelled altogether.
But let’s look at movies which have suffered a similar fate in the past. One of these movies was a winner at both the box-office and at the Oscars, winning Best Picture.
A few others were box office successes, while more than one can thank the LPF for raising its profile, even if it was only for a while, as it bombed at the box office.
Topping the list is of course Schindler’s List by director Steven Spielberg. The movie was released in 1993 and depicted the holocaust – the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis in World War II – like no other movie had done before.
However, the local censorship board banned the movie, giving a rather bizarre reason. LPF had stated that the film reflected “the privilege and the virtues of a certain race only” and that it was deemed to be “propaganda with the purpose of asking for sympathy as well as to tarnish the other race”.
After the controversy exploded with many quarters calling for a review, the board then agreed to the screening subject to all nudity and violent scenes being cut out. The movie showed the Jews, forced to parade naked by the Nazis in the concentration camps among other things.
There was no gratuituous nudity involved as the movie was meant to reflect the reality of the horrors that the Jews had experienced in the concentration camps.
However, Spielberg, who had full creative control of the movie, refused to allow any cuts in the movie. The original banning and subsequent censorship made global news.
The movie was never screened in Malaysia, and scores of Malaysians, including yours truly, made the short trip to Singapore to watch the movie uncensored. At the time, Singapore already had a movie ratings system which allowed restricted screenings for movies with violence, nudity and even sex scenes.
Schindler’s List won Best Picture, among other awards, at the Oscars the following year, and was also a global box-office success.
The little pig that could
It didn’t take long for the LPF to get back into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Just two years later, they decided to ban the lovely family movie about a pig, which had the unique ability to shepherd his owner’s sheep.
The 1995 movie was named after the pig, and became a sleeper hit in the United States, and Malaysians were looking forward to watching it here. At the time, movies used to be screened here between a few weeks to months after it opened in the US.
LPF initially banned the movie stating it would affect the sensitivities of Muslims, as the animal is considered “haram”.
Again, Malaysia received unwanted global attention with media from Hollywood to Hong Kong reporting the ban. An embarrassed government agreed to have the LPF review the ban and, lo and behold, Babe was released in local cinemas.
Of God, Christ and the Prophets
Not surprisingly, any movie that touches on religion, be it based on a holy book, or being simply a comedy or even an animation did not meet muster with the LPF.
Five key movies here are The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Prince of Egypt (1998), Noah (2014), Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007).
The Passion of the Christ was Mel Gibson’s epic retelling of the life of Jesus Christ, and included the gruesome scenes of the flogging and crucifixion of whom Christians believe is the Son of God.
After being banned from general release, the movie was eventually allowed to be privately screened in certain cinemas and by church organisations with strict restrictions. Tickets could also not be sold at the box-office counters in local cinemas. The DVD was later released and similar to Christian literature in the country, it had to carry the “Not for Muslims” label.
Interestingly, this writer recalls watching two movie blockbusters, Jesus of Nazareth and Ten Commandments, in local cinemas in the 1970s. Those were simpler times evidently.
The Prince of Egypt and Noah were not allowed to be screened in Malaysia because it depicted prophets who are also found in the Quran.
As Islam prohibits the image of prophets from being shown, the two movies were naturally banned. The former shows Moses, even if it was in an animation, and the latter, Noah.
When it came to Bruce Almighty and its sequel, Evan Almighty, the ban was because God was being potrayed in a physical form. Even if he has a booming God-like voice, Morgan Freeman just could not get the approval of the LPF, “playing God” in both movies.
This devil did not wear Prada
In the same vein as how God is a controversial topic, the LPF considers the devil or at least the word, reason enough to ban a movie.
After Babe (well, initially anyway), the banning of Daredevil in 2003, was another mind-boggling action by the LPF that got the attention of the world’s media. And well into the age of the internet, the story about the ban on Daredevil went viral fast, even before the advent of social media.
The movie based on a comic book about a vigilante superhero, who was blind and a judge, and who served justice on the bad guys, was banned because the LPF said it might encourage youngsters to “hero worship someone with a devil-sounding name”. Go figure.
Tales of a wolf and a man named ‘Zoo’
The Wolf of Wall Street, which was released in 2013, was touted as a record-breaker with the most number of times the four-letter “f” word was used – 506 in all – in any movie. It also had lots of sex and drugs, two taboo subjects where Malaysia is concerned.
It didn’t matter that a Malaysian was involved in making the movie – Prime Minister Najib Razak’s son Riza Aziz is chairman of the production company, Red Granite Pictures – the movie still did not make it to our shores.
It was also in the spotlight for its Best Picture nomination at major award shows.
Another movie which did well at the box office around the world but was not screened in local cinemas was Zoolander.
It was a hilarious satirical comedy on the life of male model Derek Zoolander, played to the hilt by Ben Stiller, and also starred Owen Wilson as a rival male model.
Zoolander had the single problem of having its plot revolve around the “assassination of the prime minister of Malaysia”.
That aside, it showed the fashion industry in the west using sweatshops allegedly based in Malaysia to make their clothes.
Let’s hope Disney backs down and allows the “gay moment” to be cut. Otherwise, it is only the distributors and local cinema chains who will lose out, with most Malaysians just downloading the movie for free, or buying the DVD from the usual suspects.
K Anand is an Executive Editor with FMT.
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