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There's a scene in the independent Malaysian movie Bukak Api when an ibu ayam ("mother hen" aka pimp) tries to get the hotheaded transvestite hooker Riena to be cautious in considering breast enhancement surgery. It's got to be one of my favourite scenes in any movie, and it has a really surreal touch: an official portrait of a very powerful Malaysian politician hangs over her make-up table.

The first time I saw it, I assumed the portrait was plonked there as some kind of lefty statement, somewhere along the lines of "Go to a whorehouse, go to Parliament - what's the difference?"

But the redoubtable Art Director Yee I-Lann assured me that the boudoir of the real-life character actually had the portrait there, alongside Malaysian flags and Quranic verses: "All of the institutions that have rejected her," was I-Lann's description. What seemed strange now gets a tinge of poignancy, an indication of just how little most of us know about our fellow countrymen, countrywomen and country-others.

I first saw Bukak Api about two years ago and it was a wild ride. The movie began as a project by Pink Triangle Malaysia to make a safe-sex video for the benefit of the transsexual, transgendered and sex-worker communities of this our fair land.

But with the recent film graduate Osman Ali handling the directing duties, it turned into something more than a documentary. After all, how entertaining can a mere putting-on-a-condom demonstration be? (Granted, the bit about the bubble-tip has always amused me.)

Head and sequinned shoulders

Bukak Api is now a full-fledged, 80-minute fictional drama very much rooted in the culture and lingo of the community it seeks to represent and empower. (The title, literally "open fire" is red-light district Chow Kit slang for sex with a client. So now you know.)

It doesn't preach, and some people might indeed be troubled by this loud, kitschy and unapologetic depiction of a marginalised community that's determined to be seen and heard. Good. There's a what-the-hell quality about the movie, even a sense of bravado.

My task as subtitler was made even more fun by the fact that there are reams of campy dialogue to spare. I would like to quote a few lines but there are too many to choose from. It's so rare to find a Malaysian movie that's in the vernacular of the street rather than the sanitised version you hear over the airwaves. This alone is a cause to rejoice, and gives Bukak Api the same alternative/subcultural cred as Nasir Jani's urban rock musical Kembara-Seniman Jalanan .

Since most of the principal cast are real-life drag queens, melodrama would be par for the course. But it's melodrama that's buzzing with attitude and social purpose, like a kinder, gentler Fassbinder. And the reason Bukak Api stands head and sequinned shoulders above most Malaysian movies is its refusal to look down on its characters.

The motherly Kak Su, socially aware Manisha, bitchy Riena, naive Jelita and tragic Murni all come to vibrant life. The idea of a "Valley of the Dolls" with hormone treatments would be exciting enough, but the very real threats to the survival of this subculture (including AIDS, client abuse and police harassment) are woven into the soapy narrative without seeming too tacked-on.

What emerges isn't so much a "message movie" as a paean to friendship and resilience that will raise quite a few eyebrows. It's provocative and confrontational, but Bukak Api is a credit to the nation in a way that the witless Malaysia Boleh! brigade emphatically is not.

Shot with a Betacam camera with a budget of RM30,000 and non-professional actors, Bukak Api looks a lot better than you would expect. There are a few dodgy montage sequences set to music. But look at the overall picture, and appreciate how cannily Bukak Api utilises the tropes of several genres such as the female buddy movie, the putting-on-a-show movie and the disease movie to get its story across.

It's a lot more fun that Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , a lot pacier than Topsy-Turvy and a lot more moving than Steel Magnolias . What more do you want? See it with somebody you rented.

* A special workshop screening of Bukak Api will take place at The Actors Studio KL from Nov 22-28. Showtime is at 8:30pm and admission is by donation. For reservations please call 03-2694 5400.

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