When I met Glen Goei, I was pleasantly surprised to see how youthful the 57-year-old looked.
The sprightly director, who was involved in Forever Fever and The Blue Mansion, as well as a multitude of plays, had recently wrapped up Revenge of the Pontianak.
Humanising the pontianak
Revenge of the Pontianak is Goei's first horror film after more than 20 years in the industry.
It is a modern interpretation of the classic Southeast Asian folklore legend of the pontianak, a vengeful female ghost who had died during or after childbirth.
Here's the trailer:
And a synopsis:
"1965, Malaysia. A small village helps Khalid and Siti prepare for their wedding day. Soon after, a great darkness falls upon the village as a string of horrific deaths and supernatural happenings create widespread fear and paranoia amongst the villagers. The events force a confession from Khalid to a murder of a girl he made pregnant years before, now believed to have returned as a Pontianak. To kill this vengeful vampire, he rallies all the men of the village and sets out into the jungle to hunt her down. But can the village stop her?"
According to him, this feature film is meant to pay homage to the regional classic horror films that he watched as a child in the 1970s, like the eponymous Pontianak that was released in 1957.
However, unlike most pontianak films, Goei attempts to humanise the female ghost by showing what happens from her point of view.
This concept sparked when Goei questioned why the pontianak is often portrayed in a negative light.
"When I was younger, my parents would always warn me to be careful of beautiful women with long hair in the middle of the night. But as I grew older, I began to wonder why is she demonised? Is she really evil?"
14 years in the making
The concept for Revenge of the Pontianak first came to his mind 13 years ago, in 2006.
It took a very long time for the film to happen as he couldn't find a writer to write the story.
That was until Malaysian director and actor Gavin Yap visited him in Singapore eight years later.
"In 2014, Gavin came to Singapore for a while and we started talking. I didn't know that Gavin loved horror films and suddenly we began discussing about the film."
The duo became co-directors and by 2015, they had raised enough funds to produce the film.
Casting began in 2017, and the crew filmed the movie within 24 days in January 2018.
An entire year to find actors
Even though Goei can speak Malay perfectly fine (he is Peranakan and learnt Malay in school for 12 years), he wasn't very familiar with Malay-speaking actors in the region.
This was another reason why it took more than a decade for the film to happen.
As he only wanted the best for his very first Malay language film, he spent an entire year looking for actors for the film.
"I really wanted to make sure that I've met all the Malay-speaking actors in Malaysia and Singapore in order to get the best cast as possible."
And a star-studded cast was what he got.
The film has well-loved celebrities from both Malaysia and Singapore including Remy Ishak, Shenty Feliziana, Hisyam Hamid, and Nur Fazura Sharifuddin.
Goei's mother casted the pontianak
The director has his mother to thank for introducing him to Fazura — his movie lead.
Goei was visiting his mother and complained to her that he couldn't find someone to play the titular role of the pontianak.
His mother, who was watching a show, then pointed to the television and said: "This one, get this one. I love her."
She was, in fact, watching Fazura's reality television show called Facing Up With Fazura.
"I don't watch television myself but she was so charming, pretty and attractive. In a way, my mother helped to cast her."
Filmed in banana orchard
As the film was set in Malaysia in 1965, the movie was filmed in a relatively remote village in Hulu Langat, Selangor, which was about a 30-minute drive away from Kuala Lumpur.
It took them six months to find the perfect location.
He described it as a beautiful forested area up on a hill with lots of banana orchards, which if you do not know, is a place often associated with pontianaks.
They even filmed in the banana orchard overnight, but encountering a pontianak was the least of their concerns then.
"We had to create rain and these poor actors, it was so cold at around two in the morning. We did many retakes and I think everybody just wanted it to end."
They also had to build the traditional Malay kampung house on stilts from scratch:
While everything seemed to fall right into place, there was one problem: It would rain almost every day.
"We just had to wait for the rain to stop every day before we continued."
And of course, there had to be some supernatural experiences while they were filming a horror film.
For instance, Fazura had apparently seen her "doppelgänger" while on set.
It was 3am in the morning when she was having her rest in between shoots when several crew members told her to look behind.
In a media interview, she shared:
"It wore an identical white kebaya with a sarung just like me. The only thing was that her long hair was covering her face."
And it seems like this wasn't the last time it had happened.
“The apparition had appeared a few times during the shooting sessions on set. Thankfully, no one was possessed or disturbed and the filming went on smoothly.”
While Goei didn't experience anything out of the normal himself, he was not allowed to use kemenyan (a sort of incense) anymore after one of the crew members had a terrifying experience.
As this was a horror movie, some of the scenes required layers of smoke to create an eerie atmosphere.
Unfortunately, their smoke machine ran out of smoke and had to resort to other alternatives.
Kemenyan was the most accessible option, especially since they were in a rather remote part of Malaysia.
"After we lit the kemenyan, somebody in the crew screamed and said: 'Stop, stop, stop the kemenyan!' The kemenyan was actually attracting the spirits."
Apart from a few "uninvited guests" here and there, the spirits don't seem to have any malevolent intent.
"The so-called pontianak did not disturb us. In fact, according to Fazura, they were just observing her acting. We've been respectful and made our prayers."
Working with Siti Nurhaliza
And as if a star-studded cast wasn't enough, Goei somehow managed to rope in Siti Nurhaliza to sing the film's theme song.
After watching the film, he knew that the film needed a theme song about love.
That's when he reached out to Aubrey Suwito, a renowned songwriter who wrote Gemilang for Malaysian Idol Jaclyn Victor.
He agreed and wrote the song, but Goei was still looking for the perfect voice for the song.
He was doing his research and looking through all these singers until Aubrey told him that he was actually Siti's music director.
"For two months I was looking for a singer and why didn't he tell me? I told him to ask if she was keen and she said yes!"
A big fan of Malaysia's queen of pop, he felt nervous to have to direct Siti for the music video.
"Never in my wildest dream would I dare to ask Siti Nurhaliza to sing for me. She was very humble and such a professional, I was so scared of her."
But he wasn't the only one with cold feet.
It seems Siti too was nervous to work with Goei too, as she initially didn't dare to talk to him directly.
"At the end of the music video, she didn't dare to ask me directly. She told Aubrey to ask me how her performance was. What was I supposed to say? How dare I direct the Malaysian queen of pop."
Revenge of the Pontianak premieres in cinemas August 29, 2019.
Top image courtesy of Tiger Tiger Productions