Exclusive: Filmmaker Adrian Teh on ‘The Assistant’ and what the Malaysian film industry needs to succeed globally

Man of many genres


By Genie Leong

Exclusive: Filmmaker Adrian Teh on ‘The Assistant’ and what the Malaysian film industry needs to succeed globally

The local film industry and its audience may be a tough crowd to please, but Malaysian filmmaker Adrian Teh is not one to back down from a challenge. Following the release of his latest film, The Assistant starring actor and long-time collaborator Hairul Azreen, we sat down with the man behind local hits such as Paskal and Wira to find out what happened behind the scenes, his eventful journey to the top of the local film industry, and what he believes will be the key to Malaysia’s success in global cinema.

The Assistant is an action-thriller that tells the story of Zafik, who was wrongfully imprisoned. After losing everything, he meets Feroz, who seems to always show up at just the right time. In his quest to avenge his family, Zafik begins to wonder about Feroz`s true motives and whether he is someone who can be trusted.

Was there an action scene in The Assistant that was particularly worrying or challenging for you as a director?

Adrian Teh: “Thankfully, this time, all my actors did not suffer any serious injuries—not because it was easier, but because we were more prepared. When you are more prepared, the risk of injuries is smaller per se. They did most of the stunts by themselves and spent three months training for all the choreographed action sequences. We worked on stamina because if you’re not fit enough, you tend to get injured due to fatigue. Hairul was quite seriously injured in Wira. This time, he got a little frostbite here and there and bruises, which are normal when you’re throwing and receiving punches.

“(That said) there was one particular shot that was quite challenging for us as visually, the actor is seen to be falling from the fourth floor all the way down to the ground floor. For that, I did not allow my actor to do it because it was too dangerous. Eventually, we filmed a camera trick shot involving a real shot, plus some CG on it. For this scene, I was worried about my stuntman, not my actor! Stuntmen are human beings too and you can’t ignore their feelings and safety. You need to be sure they are perfectly safe in order for them to carry out their work and they need to act as well, not just jump.

“That was quite worrying and challenging for me, but I’m happy because we managed to pull it off. It was one of the most difficult shots in the movie and I kind of like how it turned out too. So yeah, it was fun!”

Hairul Azreen in a scene from ‘The Assistant’

The Assistant is your fifth film with actor Hairul Azreen. Do the both of you influence each other’s craft, and in what ways?

Adrian: “Hairul doesn’t really interfere with or influence my work. I always have total freedom in doing what I want. The person who would have influence over me, in terms of the story, would be my scriptwriter—and Hairul doesn’t join in or get involved in the writing process. Where he would influence me is when it comes to dialogue because my Malay, you know, is not too great. Sometimes, the words that I have in mind might sound a bit too formal, and then he’ll step in and say, ‘You know, you should do this, or do that.’ In that sense, he’s very helpful because he can help me craft the dialogue in a more natural way.”

You’ve made movies in more than one language, and in various genres. How did you cultivate this adaptability and versatility?

“I don’t really cultivate it because it’s in me—I’m Malaysian; it’s in us. It’s not like I’m trying to go to Korea to make a Korean film while the language is totally alien to me. It’s just one of the perks of being a Malaysian: we are multilingual and know many languages. Of course, movies in different languages cater to different markets. Previously, I’ve done Chinese films and now I’m moving towards Malay films, but even in The Assistant, when you watch it, you will notice that Malay’s not the only language that’s being spoken in the movie. We have quite a significant amount of Mandarin in it and some Tamil too. I’ve tried to showcase the actual context of our society here in Malaysia. You know, this is what makes us special. In one society, we’ve got so many different races speaking so many different languages, and yet it’s a norm for us. So yeah, I would say it’s second nature for me to direct a film in another language other than Chinese.”

You could have chosen to have a career overseas. What kept you in Malaysia and what did you see in Malaysia’s film industry?

“I did try my luck overseas. In fact, I got very lucky on five of my attempts to work in China but eventually, it did not happen as per my expectations. And there, I’m just considered a disposable foreign labourer. I didn’t feel appreciated. That’s when I decided to give up on trying to venture into the overseas market and came back in 2017. Sometimes, you have to believe that there’s this thing in life called destiny or luck, whatever you call it, right? There’s something that’s meant to be.”

“The moment I decided to stop venturing to other markets was the moment that I heard about Paskal—and I was like, ‘Seriously ah?’ It was at a point in my career where I was trying to figure out my next step and I thought: “This might not be a bad idea, to do a Malay film.” The more I dug into Paskal, the more I got intrigued by it and the more I was motivated to tell the story, because it’s a story about Malaysians. It’s not a story about other people, it’s about us—and it was a story that most of us didn’t know about. Paskal came to me at the right time in my career, when I was very motivated to do it. Other than the story itself, I was in an environment and condition where I wanted to do something new, and so the rest is history.”

Teh directed ‘King of Mahjong’, a Singaporean-Malaysian comedy film that was released in 2015

How has the pandemic affected Malaysia’s film industry?

“Let me tell you how I edited this film and how I prepared for it. My action choreographing team is from Indonesia, so because of the restrictions and travel bans of the MCO, I did not have the chance to fly them here unlike what I did for Wira. Instead, we had all our discussions over Zoom. They read the script and we discussed it over Zoom before they did the planning and choreography. When that was done, they sent me the video board for me to comment on through Zoom.

“As for the editing, once I wrapped up the production, I edited the whole movie through Zoom meetings with my editor. I did not get to sit next to my editor because of MCO 3.0. So for three weeks, I got on Zoom everyday. I recorded maybe 20 videos a day that I sent to him with all my comments. The whole sequence of The Assistant was edited through Zoom meetings and WhatsApp videos during the MCO—that’s how the pandemic affected us.”

Finally, what does the Malaysian film industry need, or need to do, in order to produce more world-class films?

“We need to be more daring. We can’t keep doing the same genres over and over again just because those have proven to be successful. We can’t be doing the same thing, especially if we want to introduce Malaysian films to other territories. We need to step up our game. The LPF is playing a big role because they’re censoring our content and thus, we cannot be bolder in our storytelling and creativity. There are so many things hindering us from moving forward and it’s probably not something we can settle in our lifetime although, hopefully, we’d be able to do that.

“All in all, for Malaysian films to be recognized elsewhere, the fundamental thing is that Malaysians have to recognise Malaysian films. We have to support our own films and pay to watch them in a proper, legal way and not by downloading them [from illegal streaming sites]. So for us to be successful outside, we need to own our home turf, which right now is still being monopolised by Hollywood films, Korean films, and a lot of other foreign films. It takes time but eventually, I hope we’ll get there.”