Gay kiss unlocks ancient taboo

FOR a devout Muslim country, a film featuring a gay kiss is an unlikely movie hit.

But Arisan! is drawing local audiences in their thousands, bringing to the fore an issue normally regarded as taboo.

Playing to packed cinemas in Jakarta, Arisan! is a satirical comedy mocking the life of the rich in the nation’s capital and tackling the previously unmentionable subject of homosexuality.

To the surprise of many in the Indonesian film industry, state censors passed the movie with almost no cuts. Scenes left untouched include an aerial shot of oral sex in a public toilet and a gay kiss.

"It is a breakthrough," said Dede Oetomo, a sociologist and one of Indonesia’s few openly gay activists.

But not everyone enjoyed the kiss.

During one recent screening, some members of the audience jeered and shouted in disapproval when the main gay character planted a passionate kiss on the lips of his new-found lover.

"I heard about the gay thing, but I wasn’t prepared for the kiss. It’s kind of sickening, don’t you think?" said Melisa Soeparman, 28, a housewife emerging from a screening.

The film follows the lives of the few, but very powerful, super-rich in Jakarta, drawn together in a traditional Indonesian-style social-support group known as an arisan.

"It is a true reflection of life in Jakarta," said Nia Dinata, the production’s director, puffing on a menthol cigarette.

"I am trying to capture the life and the habits of the rich who always put on masks as if everything was perfect," said the mother of two, aged 33.

Arisan is a common term for a monthly social gathering between friends and relatives who chip in money to be won in turns through a lucky draw.

From villagers in far-flung areas to urban professionals in big cities, arisan - initially contrived as a type of support network for ethnic Chinese merchants - is hugely popular among Indonesia’s 210 million people, especially housewives.

"It has become a uniquely Indonesian thing," says the United States-educated Mr Oetomo.

But some arisan in Jakarta have grown into an exhibit of wealth featuring a who’s who of high society. The prize draws range from millions of rupiah worth of goodies to a date with a high-class prostitute.

The film’s three main characters are struggling to maintain a facade in front of the other arisan members although in truth their lives are less than perfect.

Meimei is a successful interior designer battling with infertility and married to an unfaithful husband, while Andien, a bed-hopping wife, is also married to an unfaithful husband.

The leading male character, Sakt, is their faithful gay friend who is struggling to "cure" his homosexuality.

Audience reactions might be mixed, but everyone has an opinion. Perhaps more importantly, the critics love it.

The respected weekly magazine Tempo - the voice-piece of the most influential Indonesian art critics - called the film "the freshest movie of the year with an almost perfect script". The daily Jakarta Post described the film as: "Achingly funny, an honest work from the heart".

The film is low-budget by Hollywood standards. But into its third week in Jakarta alone it has drawn more than 100,000 viewers, a huge success in the small and competitive local market, according to an official at Indonesia’s biggest theatre chain, Twenty One.

Shot in just 32 days on a budget of two billion rupiah (129,000), Arisan! is among a crop of new releases interpreted as a sign of a revival in the Indonesian film industry after a decade in the doldrums.

But it stands out among the other offerings, which are confined to the staple fare of teen romance and horror.

Unusually for a Muslim country, Indonesian society is relatively tolerant of homosexuality, but it is unusual for the topic to receive a public airing.

Indonesian law makes no mention of homosexuality and the relatively liberal mass media rarely discuss the issue, despite the presence of a number of gay public figures.

Joko Anwar, the film’s scriptwriter, said initial fears of a possible backlash by zealous religious groups have yet to materialise.

Such worries are understandable in a country where the newly democratic government is battling an alarming rise in Islamic militancy.

But, says Mr Oetomo, the lack of outrage does not indicate a new acceptance of gays in Indonesia.

"It’s more like, ‘I know you exist, but please don’t bother me’. That’s why we have everything here, from fanatic groups to gay rights groups."

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