Crossing Natural Boundaries: An Interview with Remi M Sali

Singapore filmmaker Remi M Sali wants to take audiences, especially those too used to the traditional pontianak movies, away from its familiar environment, into a more contemporary world with a cross-cultural element as well. He considers his film, Konpaku, an undertaking of a huge leap of faith with its introduction of a more foreign element in its horror equation, more sexually-suggestive content and more liberal use of everyday spoken Malay, which is considered coarse and uncouth. He is mindful of the potential backlash from the largely conservative Malay-Muslim community and he is ready to face it.

In Konpaku, Haqim (played by Junaidi M Sali) loses his sweetheart to his best friend but quickly falls in love again with the sensual and mysterious Japanese vamp, Midori (played by Lizzie V). To him, Midori is his perfect companion, his soulmate, hence the film’s title which means soul in Japanese. But this attractive vamp also happens to be a Japanese succubus. Midori provides Haqim with a much-needed respite from his heartache, rekindling his faith in love. He grows increasingly dependent on her while becoming distant from everyone else, including his beloved mother. But Midori wants his complete devotion, and is willing to eliminate any interference. Their growing passion takes on a sinister twist, when strange incidents befall those close to Haqim. 

SINdie caught up with Remi to understand his journey in making Konpaku and he was certainly more than ready for our questions!

You mentioned that your participation in an exorcism gave birth to the idea for this film. I am very curious about what you saw. 

I have a relative, *Hirzi (name changed to protect his identity), who is 10 years younger than me. We used to be much closer when we were young. He used to look up to me like a brother. I thought he was a smart and jovial fellow. We grew apart as I got into NS and we subsequently would only meet during family occasions like Hari Raya or at some mutual wedding functions. 

When Hirzi was 25yo in 2011, he became rather cold towards his mother. He was seeing someone, I heard, but he was secretive about it. I assumed he just had an attitude problem. When he became increasingly temperamental at home, I thought it'd do him good to see a psychiatrist, to work on his mental well-being. 

Hirzi's mother approached me one evening, and told me matter-of-factly that Hirzi was 'attached' to a female supernatural entity that progressively affected him, physically and spiritually. She wanted me to assist in an Islamic exorcism rite to get rid of the entity. 

I was sceptical of course. I've watched countless English and regional horror movies with exorcism scenes, but always regarded them as pure fiction (even movies that claim to be inspired by actual events). And I wasn't enthusiastic to be involved in an Islamic-based exorcism. I wasn't, and am not, the religious type. 

However, I couldn't just dismiss Hirzi's mother's request. I resisted to tell her Hirzi should be sent to IMH for a check up instead. I thought I could sleepwalk through the whole mumbo jumbo, maybe have a good laugh with Hirzi once it was over. 

That evening of the intended exorcism, my family (my mother, brother and sisters) went over to Hirzi's place and I started chatting with him. He seemed normal at first, but his eyes eventually became glazed. He abruptly stood up and went inside his room. 

That was when I realised the Ustaz (male Islamic religious leader) had just arrived and was outside the door. 

The Ustaz was a fair-skinned Malay bearded man in his late 40s, decked in white Muslim robes. He carried an air of superiority that made me uncomfortable to be around him. Once he stepped inside, he began inspecting every corner of the house, then stopping outside Hirzi's room. 

Hirzi opened the door and went into the hall. The Ustaz didn't follow, but coolly stepped into his room to inspect it. Hirzi's pet cat, which had been following the Ustaz and us around, also went inside. The cat suddenly started to choke! 

I would always remember that smug look on the Ustaz's face, as he coolly announced: “Yes, there is an entity in the house.” 

The cat stopped wheezing after a while. No, there wasn't any hairball. I had a sinking feeling that night would turn into my personal nightmare. 

The Ustaz instructed my brother and I to get a cloth large enough to bind Hirzi. We settled for a bed sheet. The Ustaz took out a rattan cane, typically used by Asian parents to discipline children in the past. 

We proceeded to bind Hirzi with the bed sheet. He struggled, ripping my t-shirt and breaking my spectacles in the process. Hirzi was like in a trance, with tears running down his cheeks. He started chanting, “Dia aku punya (he's mine)”, and occasionally laughing. 

The Ustaz asked the entity, through Hirzi, for its name. Hirzi refused to answer, repeating, “He's mine”, over and over. The Ustaz commanded the entity to leave Hirzi's body, but Hirzi said, “If I leave, another ten will enter.” 

The Ustaz instructed my brother and I to show him Hirzi's feet. He started to cane Hirzi's soles, commanding the entity to leave. Hirzi yelled out in pain, whining, “He's feeling the pain too! Mum, help me! Help me!” 

Hirzi's mother, who was with my mother and sisters in the next room, ignored his pleas and recited verses from the Qur'an. 

I didn't know how long the caning went. I was in a daze, trying to see through my broken spectacles, wishing that Hirzi would just stop and say hey, this was all an act! My mind was racing. If it were an act, then it'd be an elaborate one, and the Ustaz would have to be in cahoots with Hirzi. 

The Ustaz then stopped, and negotiated with the entity for its terms to leave Hirzi's body. Eventually, the entity agreed to let him go unconditionally (which turned out to be a lie). My brother and I released Hirzi from being bound. 

What happened next, would haunt me for years to come. 

Hirzi was on the floor in the hall, sobbing uncontrollably. He tearfully caressed his own face slowly and lovingly, like bidding a final farewell. 

I was completely destroyed emotionally and spiritually by then. Hirzi is NOT an actor. It'd take a special talent to improvise and act like he did. And I, as a director and storyteller, could not possibly come up with such a scene myself. It was harrowingly beautiful. I actually felt sorry for the entity and Hirzi. (Much later, I shared what I felt with my family, and was immediately admonished. I shouldn't feel sorry for the entity, I was told.) 

Hirzi woke up from his trance. The smug Ustaz left. If only that was the end of the story. Hirzi is still handling being attached to his 'supernatural partner' to this day. So far, I've helped out in more than 5 exorcisms, with different healers. 

But what I experienced that particular night shook me to the core. I was forced to confront my internal struggle with my own religion and identity. My perspective on life and personal relationship with God was forever changed. 

You have a huge body of media work. How is Konpaku different from your usual works? 

I have directed many dramas for local Malay television, and I've been practising self-censorship to get my work approved. 

With Konpaku, I took the liberty to free myself from censorship pertaining to Malay content. But it was harder than I imagined. There was a lot of fear, and bad habit, involved when creating Konpaku. I'm glad that the production process has made me more confident in exploring what we can do in a Malay movie, rather than what we cannot. 

Is this like a race-swapped version of a Pontianak film? Do you personally understand Japanese? 

No, it's not a race-swapped version of a Pontianak film. In Konpaku, Midori as an entity is something new, and yet to be identified. She is not bound by any preconceived rules attached to familiar Malay ghosts, like the Pontianak, Penanggal or even Hantu Kum Kum. Just like what my relative Hirzi experienced, I want the audience to learn the entity's characteristics as the movie unfolds. 

For example, Midori can appear in the daytime. She can shapeshift and can also converse through the handphone, in her unique way. I loosely categorise Midori as a succubus, or a sex demoness who survives by feeding on a person's love and devotion. But in the movie, Midori stands for more than that. Midori means 'green' in Japanese, which is a symbolic colour for Islam as a religion. Haqim means 'judge' in Malay, referencing law and order. 

Midori and Haqim have arguably found the perfect love through each other, no matter how twisted and bastardised that love is. Where do we draw the line? How would religion and law bend where love is concerned, if it is deemed forbidden? 

I have very basic understanding of Japanese. I've tried learning the language – unsuccessfullly – in early 2000s. I could only survive the beginner course twice. I couldn't go through the intermediate course, because as a Malay, I found Kanji so difficult! I'd like to try learning it in future. I'm learning Mandarin at the moment, and I'm slowly accepting logograms as a form of writing. 

Are you a huge horror fan? What are some of the scariest horror films in your opinion? 

In the early 1980s, my family used to live in Toa Payoh. In the weekends, my parents used to bring my sister and I to Kong Chian Cinema, which was 20 minutes walk from our house, to watch an Indonesian horror movie. I fondly remember insisting that my sister and I be seated between my parents, for 'extra protection'. I would snuggle up to my sister, with my feet up, so no 'ghost' could grab them. Also, because there were the occasional cockroaches scuttling on the cinema floor! 

I'm ecstatic to find some of the horror movies that I watched are now available on youtube. 

Check them out: 

Godaan Silumn Perempuan, about a foetus-eating vampiress wreaking havoc in a village.  

Penangkal Ilmu Teluh about a woman who used black magic to be beautiful, but it went awfully wrong.  

Bayi Ajaib, about a vengeful spirit who possessed a boy. 

Pengabdi Setan, about a devil worshipper who infiltrated into a non-religious family. 

Ingin Cepat Kaya, about a man who could turn himself into a pig to steal from his village!  

What was the most challenging thing about making Konpaku

It was actually directing the intimate scenes, as it involved my own brother. I also had him do other sexually-suggestive actions, like touching himself on screen. 

Here, I would like to emphasise that the intimate scenes are crucial for the story, not for shock value. We took great care to protect our talents, lest they were accused of indulging in un-Islamic behaviour. No actual kissing was made between Haqim and Midori. The intimate scenes and shooting takes were kept to the minimum, using strategic camera angles we could think of and execute. 

What do you think audiences here can prepare themselves for in watching Konpaku

Konpaku is an indie movie in its purest form, without any standard support from Singapore Film Commission. It was a cosmic journey from start to finish, and it took us a wholly new level to get it screened in the cinemas. 

Konpaku to me represents a breakthrough for a local Malay movie, a taste of what we can showcase in terms of content. This movie will not be passed on national television without heavy cuts, given its liberal use of coarse language and also provocative scenes. 

The movie is also made to address current concerns on interracial relationships within the Malay-Muslim community. If we take away the supernatural aspects from the movie, audiences will still get the relevance of the dialogue on conversion to Islam. 

Was there any notable difference in reception international vs locally? 

I'll compare the reception between the international premiere and the local premiere. 

Konpaku had its International Premiere at Udine Far East Film Festival, Italy in 2019. It was the only Singapore entry that year. The full-house screening was held at the classic, 1200-capacity Teotro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine. Naturally, I felt terrified! All other film offerings were of much bigger budget than ours, with notable stars. I'm relieved to say that Konpaku was well-received there. There's an especially tender moment in the movie, showing Haqim's mother outside the door, pleading to him to open it. I saw a lot in the audience dabbing away their tears. I felt so much better and reassured after that. 

We did encounter a culture clash from an Italian reviewer, where he couldn't understand why Haqim would still be living with his mother despite his age. He was also unimpressed that Haqim didn't get into bed immediately with Midori on their first meet! 

We had a closed-door local premiere screening of Konpaku, for cast, crew and guests. It was certainly a night to remember! There were a lot of mature Malays – the Pakciks and the Makciks – who were in the audience. They were truly vocal when watching the movie, with genuine screams during the scary scenes. Also, they clicked their tongues in disapproval for the many intimate moments in the movie! After the movie ended, there was dead silence. I actually felt paranoid, as I thought the movie really did go too far in its content and approach. It was later on that I got to know that the audience was still processing the experience way after the movie's credits. I took that as a good sign. 

I really hope Singapore audiences will give Konpaku a chance and watch it at Filmgarde Cineplexes.

Konpaku has just opened in Filmgarde Cineplexes in Singapore. Catch it today!
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