‘La Luna’ Director on Making a ‘Sex Comedy,’ Censorship and Resurgence of Malaysian

Closing this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, M. Raihan Halim’s “La Luna” pushes the boundaries of Malay-language comedy by chronicling the changes brought by the opening of a lingerie shop in a conservative rural community in Malaysia.

Titled after the eponymous shop, the film follows a rebellious woman who opens the lingerie parlour not only to teach local women about their sexuality but also to provide a haven for those who might be struggling under the hands of controlling — and often violent — husbands and fathers. Despite the prodding of such complicated political and religious issues, “La Luna” still plays as a classic uplifting comedy about the importance of community.

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The film is based on a true story about a lingerie shop that burned down in Qatar’s capital of Doha, but Halim tells Variety he knew he had to set the film in an environment he was familiar with. “The decision to have the film set in Malaysia was a cultural one. I could have written and sold it to other neighboring markets, but I wouldn’t have the same level of understanding. In my film, I recognise all of these characters: they are my family and my friends. And I had never seen a film like mine being made in Malaysia before.”

“We dream of making films and being able to show them to the world, to tell stories that have never been told before, in terms of sex in Muslim culture, which is something many people have never heard of. People kept asking me why I wanted to make a ‘sex comedy,’ but it’s not a sex comedy, it’s a film about intimacy. We have cheeky scenes followed by scenes of people wearing turbans and discussing religion and this is unprecedented.”

“We have films talking about issues that had never been mentioned in cinema five years ago,” says the director of a recent resurgence of independent Malaysian cinema, going on to highlight Amanda Nell Eu’s Cannes-selected “Tiger Stripes.” “Amanda and I had the same art director and shared crew members. We came out as filmmakers at the same time, but we’ve made completely different films. It feels like a truly great time to be making Malay-language films in Malaysia.”

“There are a lot of artisans around because we do a lot of television work in Malaysia and Singapore,” he continues. “But we never get the chance to feel like true artists. When we work on television we have to deal with censorship because TV is funded by the government. When we make films, we get to be more daring, and artists get to finally develop to their full potential.”

Speaking about the state of Malaysian cinema, festival director Vanja Kaludjercic highlights the fact that there are two radically different but greatly daring Malaysian films playing at the festival, Halim’s “La Luna” and Sun-J Perumal’s “Fire on Water.”

“It’s a strong year for Malaysian cinema. This is why cinema is important. What we do with the festival is grant international exposure. ‘La Luna’ was a perfect ending to the festival as a comedy that goes into subjects that could get very grim but it is so embracing and heartwarming. To champion this kind of filmmaking as the closing night of a festival in a city that is home to so many different nationalities and one of the most diverse in the Netherlands was a no-brainer.”

“I never dreamed I’d be showing my film at international festivals, speaking about my work and my culture to press and audiences across the world,” says the director. “Travelling, talking to different people and learning about different perspectives educates us and shows us that the world is not as small as Malaysia or Singapore. It makes us realize that we need to make films for the world, not just for our countries.”

As for what comes next, Halim is currently developing “the last part of a hijab trilogy,” following “La Luna” and 2014’s “Banting,” about a hijab-wearing woman who begins secretly taking wrestling lessons.

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