One of the biggest films to come out of Malaysia in recent years is PASKAL: The Movie, an action film about an elite Malaysian Navy strike team who take on a gang of Somali pirates on the high seas. Director Adrian Teh, who has directed comedies like The Wedding Diary and its sequel and King of Mahjong, is now synonymous with the action film genre. He has followed up Paskal with Wira, which means “Hero” in Malay.
Wira tells the story of Hassan (Hairul Azreen), a young commando who retires early to return to the village where he grew after learning that his father Munas (Dato Hilal Azman) and his sister Zain (Fify Azmi) are in danger. Zain has followed in her brother’s footsteps to become an MMA fighter, taking on increasingly dangerous fights. The fights are organised by local kingpin Raja (Dain Iskandar Said), who under the guise of being a legitimate businessman and developer, keeps the residents of the village firmly under his thumb as he runs a massive drug and gambling operation. Hassan gets back into the ring and faces off against Raja’s goons, including his mysterious and formidable chief of security Ifrit (Yayan Ruhian).
Hairul Azreen, who in addition to being an actor is a martial artist and a former stuntman, starred in Paskal and is also known for his performances in Police Evo 2 and Operasi X.
Yayan Ruhian, an Indonesian silat instructor, has become an action star after starring in Merantau, The Raid and The Raid 2. Yayan can also be seen in Hollywood films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Beyond Skyline and John Wick: Chapter 3. In addition to playing Ifrit, he serves as the action choreographer on Wira.
Director Teh and actors Hairul and Yayan were in Singapore to promote Wira and spoke to F*** at the Grand Park City Hall hotel. Teh spoke to us in English, with Hairul and Yayan speaking in some English and in translated Malay and Indonesian, with Teh and an interpreter assisting. They discussed how Wira marks a milestone for Malaysian action movies, revealed a particularly painful injury Hairul sustained making the movie, the process of designing the action sequences and working with Dain Iskandar Said, himself a renowned director.
F*** MAGAZINE: Adrian, this is your follow-up to Paskal. What made you want to make Wira?
ADRIAN TEH: I’ve always wanted to do this kind of action film, which is [realistic] fighting scenes. In Malaysia, before Wira, I think the level of action choreography has been the same. The level has been stagnant for a while – when people want to do action films in Malaysia, it always will be “like that, like that, like that”. I wanted to do Wira because I wanted to have a breakthrough in the level of choreography and fighting scenes in a local action film. I’ve wanted to do that for a while. The success of Paskal proved to my investors that there is a market for action films Malaysia. After Paskal, they are more convinced to give me the budget for Wira.
Adrian, there is one shot in this movie I really love – during the fight on the bus, the camera leaves the window, goes outside the bus, then comes back in the back window, all in one move. How did you film this sequence?
ADRIAN TEH: This is the reason why I hoped to have a breakthrough in terms of Malaysian action films. This is one of the shots I achieved in Wira. The whole bus fight scene took a lot time to plan, to prep and to think how it can be achieved. It combines two sets of filming: one is on [location], plus a studio shoot. We spent a lot of time studying how to get the best out of that scene, and how we can combine the studio scene with the [on-location] scene. Not only that shot, there are a few shots in the movie where we really thought of it and really gave a lot of hard work and preparation to it. The most important element to it is the fighting, is the choreography, the details to each fighting scene. I’m kind of happy with the end product.
Hairul, which fight scenes did you find the most challenging?
HAIRUL AZREEN: For me, it’s the one shot, one take – I needed to jump from the second level to the ground floor. I tore three [ligaments] in my ankle. We continued the next day. That was very hard for me, but we did it.
ADRIAN TEH: To compare the shot you mentioned just now and that shot, that one is actually technically even more challenging for us to shoot.
Abang Yayan, we have seen how Hollywood is influenced by the action cinema of Asia, be it Hong Kong movies, Thai movies and Indonesian movies. From your experience Hollywood, what do you feel the stuntmen there learned from you, and was there anything you learned from them?
YAYAN RUHIAN: I have made movies in Indonesia, in Hollywood and now in Malaysia. They are practically all the same, but the same feeling that I had filming The Raid and in Hollywood is what I felt filming Wira. I believe this movie will be a milestone for Malaysian film like we’ve never seen before, and this might be the next big action film. This is at an international level, like The Raid and like John Wick. The Raid and Wira show that filmmakers in Southeast Asia can create something as good as Hollywood.
The movie is also about family. How did you come up with the story for Wira?
ADRIAN TEH: I started out by wanting to work on an action film like that, then I started looking for a story. Paskal is about a group of Navy personnel who sacrifice their lives and their time with their family to serve their country, that’s the big theme of Paskal. As a creative person, I tried to do something completely [different] with Wira. This time around, it’s about a commando who decides to retire early to go back to his kampung and rescue his family. In Paskal we talked about country and in Wira we talk about family.
Hairul, one of the important elements of the movie is the bond between Hassan and Zain, the audience must believe that they can fight back-to-back as a unit. what was it like working with Fify Azmi, and how did you develop the brother-sister bond between the two of you as actors?
HAIRUL AZREEN: Fify is a newcomer, first time acting. I needed to be comfortable with her on set and in training. The bonding that I tried to develop with Fify had to take place off the set so we could both feel comfortable when we act. We had to train together for three months.
Adrian and Hairul, what was the transition like from Paskal to Wira?
HAIRUL AZREEN: It’s different: with Paskal, [the focus was on] tactical armed combat. My characters Arman and Hassan are also different. Arman is a straightforward guy. Hassan must save his family, his sister, so I think they are very different.
ADRIAN TEH: It’s more taxing for him to be in Wira than Paskal, physically and in terms of screentime. In Paskal, we had a team, an ensemble. For Wira, it really depends on him. For me, working on Paskal and working on Wira [presented] two different sets of challenges, but I enjoyed working with Hairul again.
Abang Yayan and Hairul, the whole movie is building up the fight between the both of you, which takes place simultaneously with the fight between Fify Azmi and Ismi Melinda. Did you feel the pressure because there would be so much anticipation to see this scene?
YAYAN RUHIAN: No, because we enjoyed doing the fighting. We prepared for a long time.
ADRIAN TEH: I think because of the bootcamp, because of the training, they enjoyed the sequence. It’s not like they are not familiar with [it] and had to force themselves to memorise it; they can do it with their eyes closed. They’re very familiar, very comfortable with the action.
HAIRUL AZREEN: Acting with Abang Yayan is awesome because I feel like I’ve touched Hollywood. It’s such a thrill. Abang Yayan is a legend, but he is so humble and down-to-earth. For a legend like that to sit next to me and hang out with me is incredible.
It can get so intense on a film set, so it’s important to have a good temperament.
ADRIAN TEH: That’s very important, I agree. Abang Yayan has a very good temperament. He is very firm, but very tolerant of others.
Adrian, Dain Iskandar Said is a director himself. What was it like working with him, and did he offer any advice or did he say to you “you are the director, I am the actor, you tell me what you want in this movie”?
ADRIAN TEH: This is the question I get the most frequently from the media. He is a legend[ary] director in Malaysia, everybody knows his work. You’d be surprised, he’s actually a very good actor. He’s very professional on set, he will never try to overstep his role. He will give me different options in his performance for me to choose [from]. When we wanted to cast him, he did not believe me. He said “come on, you just want me to make a cameo, right?” I said “no, I want you to be the main villain of the movie.” He was like “Are you sure?” and I said “I’m very sure”. He insisted that I ask him three times before he accepted the offer. I had already wanted him, I was dead sure I would cast him in the role, but he asked me to audition him three times. Only then, he said “Okay, now I can act.”
What did you learn making Paskal that you brought to Wira?
ADRIAN TEH: I think I am more thorough with Wira. I paid more attention to detail with Wira. Technically and the time I had with my actors. In Wira, I had a relatively smaller group of actors than in Paskal, so I get to work with my actors in Wira better. Riding on the back of Paskal, there definitely was pressure, so I spent more time on Wira.
Abang Yayan, there’s something so mesmerising about watching you fight, the way you do silat. I think there is a difference between what looks on camera and what would actually be effective in a real fight, and the way you fight has the best of both worlds: it looks so cinematic, but also looks like it would really hurt somebody. How do you attain that balance in your fighting?
YAYAN RUHIAN: It’s different, because in front of the camera, it’s not just the killing technique, but the beauty technique, that’s the difference. To kill someone, I think it’s very easy. Beauty fighting is very important in front of the camera. In front of the camera, we need to make the fighting look like real fighting.
Adrian, that’s something you were aiming for right, something that felt authentic?
ADRIAN TEH: Yes. That’s the level of choreography and the level of action we are trying to present to the audience.
Adrian, there are many ways that filmmakers plan out and prepare fight scenes, including storyboards, animatics and stunt-viz, filming the stunt performers in the gym performing a version of the fight that is shot and edited to be a template for the actual scene in the movie. How were the fight scenes in Wira designed and planned?
ADRIAN TEH: We had seven fight scenes in Wira, three major ones and four relatively smaller ones. That was the first thing I discussed with Abang Yayan when he first got to KL. I put different elements in every fight scene so audiences wouldn’t get bored. There are five fight scenes for Hassan. I discussed it with Abang Yayan, the different intentions Hassan had in each fight scene.
So there’s a character arc for Hassan in the fight scenes.
ADRIAN TEH: Yes – not just a character arc, but in each fighting scene, I have different points to sell. Abang Yayan is very good at that, he knows how to tell a story in a fighting scene, using the design, choreographed movement to tell you the arc of the fighting: who’s winning, who’s losing, and who turned the tide. He’s very good at that.
Hairul, one of the things I love about your character is that even though he is a fighter and he can beat people up, he is innately decent. I love the part when he is reluctant to punch his friend Boon in the face and Boon is asking him to do it. How do you balance those sides of the character, the decent side and the violent side?
HAIRUL AZREEN: I watched two movies for reference: Ip Man and John Wick. After [a dramatic incident in the film], I’m John Wick. Before that, I’m Ip Man. It’s that simple.
ADRIAN TEH: He’s both Donnie Yen and Keanu Reeves.
Wira opens in Singapore on 21 November 2019.