Revenge of the Pontianak: An Interview with Glen Goei and Gavin Yap

Mina (Nur Fazura) is the pontianak
In 1957, Cathay-Keris Productions premiered a film that would establish a new staple in Southeast Asian cinema. That film was Pontianak, directed by B. Narayan Rao. As its eponymous title suggests, the film was based upon the Malay folklore of a vengeful vampire spirit born from a woman's death during or after childbirth. 

In the decades to come, Pontianak would spawn a cascade of sequels, remakes, and retellings. It has since become synonymous with cinema in the region. Even after 60 years, the spirit of the pontianak horror genre continues to live on. This year, the spirit returns to the silver screen in Glen Goei and Gavin Yaps' new feature, Revenge of the Pontianak.

Glen Goei

Gavin Yap
Goei is probably best known as one of the region's leading theatre practitioners. He has ventured into filmmaking in the past, with features such as Forever Fever (1998) and Blue Mansion (2009) under his belt. Revenge of the Pontianak not only marks his first horror film, but his return to feature filmmaking after a 10 year hiatus. His collaborator, Yap, is no stranger to filmmaking either. As a director-actor, Yap has been active in the Malaysian filmmaking scene, with dramas such as Take Me to Dinner (2014) and, recently, another horror film titled KL:24 Zombies (2017). 

Besides spawning a genre, the Pontianak films seem equally responsible for spawning an early interest in filmmaking for many directors in the region. This could not be more true for Goei and Yap. In an email interview with SINdie, Goei and Yap revealed how this project was their ode to a horror genre so dear to them and the region. Even the title itself alludes to Rao's 1957 Pontianak sequel, Dendam Pontianak, which literally translates to "revenge of the pontianak" in Malay.

Khalid (Remy Ishak)
The story revolves around Khalid (Remy Ishak) and Siti (Shenty Felizaina), who are preparing for their wedding in a village in Malaysia. The spirit of Khalid's past lover takes the form of a pontianak, Mina (Nur Fazura), who wants to exact revenge. Her arrival leads to a string of horrific and supernatural events that brings paranoia and fear to the village. Thus far, this may seem like the run-of-the-mill pontianak horror plot, but it is anything but.

Siti (Shenty Felizaina)

The pontianak
Where Goei and Yap depart from the traditional plot is the manner in which they explore the pathos of the titular character. As Yap expresses, "There’s a great sense of tragedy and sadness to the pontianak folklore that’s rarely explored." Their joint efforts to shine a new light on the pontianak character is a testament to how far the genre has come since the 1950s.

The interview with Glen Goei and Gavin Yap is appended below.

SINdie: Glen, Revenge of the Pontianak marks the first time you’re co-directing a feature. Why did you choose to co-direct, and what’s different about the creative process?

Goei: I chose to co-direct because the nature of the film is very demanding. First of all, we set the film in the 60s so art direction is a very important key component of the film since the film is a tribute to the golden era of Malay cinema in the 50s and 60s. Secondly, because a lot of the film is shot in a tropical rainforest, it meant that physically it would be demanding; and because it is a horror film, a lot of the scenes are overnight shoots. From all those angles, I felt that it would be better to have a co-director to share out the responsibilities.

Glen, as a theatre practitioner, what draws you to film as a medium? What does film offer you as opposed to theatre?

Goei: As a storyteller I want to have as many canvases to tell my stories. Theatre is one of the canvas and film being another one. So really, it is about having a different canvas to tell my stories. Film allows me to potentially reach out to a larger audience and to an audience which is beyond the shores of Singapore.

Also, Revenge of the Pontianak appears to be a departure from your more comedic films and theatrical works in the past. What motivated your venture into the horror genre?

Goei: I grew up on horror films especially the Pontianak films of the 50s and 60s because they were shown on repeat in the 70s on television. I really enjoy them and I wanted to pay tribute to that Pontianak genre and the golden age of Malay cinema. I felt that this very important folklore which is so integral in Southeast Asian culture is slowly disappearing and the younger generation have not been exposed to Pontianak films. So I wanted to make a film which would celebrate this folklore and make it accessible to the younger generation. 

Gavin, what do you think makes the Pontianak horror genre so unique, as compared to other horror sub-genres?

Yap: Probably because it’s ingrained in our own Southeast Asian culture. Most of us have either met someone who’s had an encounter or have spoken to someone who knows someone who’s seen one, etc. And so because of that, there’s a familiarity to it that kinda makes it more scary 'cause we feel close to it. I mean, when I’m driving down a dark road late at night and there are no other cars to be seen, in the back of my mind, I’m always expecting to see one, or hoping not to.

What makes Revenge of the Pontianak different from previous film adaptations of the Pontianak folklore?

Yap: With this film, we wanted to go deeper into her backstory. There’s a great sense of tragedy and sadness to the Pontianak folklore that’s rarely explored, so we really wanted to bring that out with this film. To see things from her perspective and to humanise her. 

Mina and Khalid dancing

What do you think makes horror so alluring?

Yap: Horror provides the kind of visceral experience that most other genres can’t come close to. Plus there’s something strangely fun about getting the crap scared out of you, particularly when it’s a shared experience with other horror fans in a packed cinema. It allows us to dip our toes into a darker world for a couple of hours.

Ultimately, what do you want viewers to get out of Revenge of the Pontianak?

Yap: First and foremost, I hope that they’ll be entertained and moved by the film. But I also hope that this will reintroduce the Pontianak to a new generation of movie-goers and perhaps make them re-evaluate their perception of who and what a Pontianak is.

Revenge of the Pontianak premiered in Singapore on 29 August 2019.

Written by Charlie Chua
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