When Syamsul Yusof’s Munafik came out in 2016, it walked on uncharted territory … at least in the Malaysian film industry.
Its DNA was made up of horror and religion, something that hadn’t been explored together in Malaysia before.
His film excelled not only because it offered horror elements and clever twists. The audiences found a connection with how the main character grappled with his faith after a family tragedy, and held on tightly to his beliefs even though he faced multiple hurdles meant to sway him from the righteous path.
For those reasons, Munafik became a big hit.
At the Malaysian box-office, the film earned RM17.04mil. It won five awards at the 28th Malaysia Film Festival, including Best National Language Film.
It was also bestowed an overseas accolade: Syamsul was named the Best Director at the 57th Asia-Pacific Film Festival for Munafik, which he wrote and starred in.
Thus, coming up with a sequel – one that is just as good as the first, or even better – put extra pressure on the 34-year-old, who admitted to experiencing writer’s block when starting on the script.
“I shut myself off from everything for a month to write the script,” he said at an interview at Dash Box Hotel in Cyberjaya.
“It isn’t easy to strike that balance between horror and religious elements.
“The first film was very successful and loved so much by the audience, I had to one-up myself for the sequel.”
From the get go, Syamsul was determined to make a poignant second film for the fans.
“I didn’t want to stray too far from themes seen in the first film,” said Syamsul, who reprises the role of protagonist Ustaz Adam in Munafik 2.
“So I referred to the Al-Quran and Stories Of The Prophets, specifically to the Jahiliyyah period (Age of Ignorance during the Prophet Muhammad days), and relate it to what is happening today with the affliction upon Muslims in Syria and Palestine.
“I want the audience to think and reflect after watching Munafik 2, besides being entertained,” he mentioned.
“We often read news about the sufferings of Muslims in countries at war due to extremist groups.
“Here, I want to show the audience a peek of what they go through, to be in their shoes, and leave an impact in the viewers’ minds.”
To hell and back
Munafik 2 continues from the events in the first film, with Adam facing a different kind of evil – a cult leader (Nasir Bilal Khan) who is bent on misinterpreting the teachings of Islam for his own gains.
Caught in the crossfire is single mother, Sakinah (Maya Karin), who suffers greatly at the hands of the cult after she rejects its teachings and the leader’s marriage proposal.
Maya was keen to join Munafik 2 when the role of Sakinah was offered to her.
The film marks not only Maya’s return to a familiar genre – the 38-year-old actress is known for her supernatural roles in Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam films and Jari Waris Hantu – but is also her first film after almost four years of absence from the local film industry. (Her last film was 2015’s Juwanita.)
“I love the physical aspect of making a horror movie,” explained Maya of her fondness for acting in the genre even though she confesses to being too scared to watch a scary movie.
“In Munafik 2, there are many dramatic scenes that require not only physical strength but also mental energy. (For example) to project a scream – to convey its intensity and make it real for the audience – it takes a lot out of you.
“Another time, I was hitting the floor with my knuckles and got carried away with the performance, that I didn’t realise I hurt my knuckles. By the end of filming, I was bruised all over – arms, legs, knuckles. You can’t be a sissy when doing a horror film,” she shared with a laugh.
During the 20-day shoot that was done outdoors (out of 72 days in total), Maya did all the stunts herself which had her running from a cave, through a jungle while carrying a seven-year-old child in her arm, as well as hanging from a tree and screaming her lungs out in Arabic.
And Maya did all of these without any makeup on as Syamsul wanted Sakinah to look natural … well, except when Sakinah gets possessed, and that’s when Maya sat through a three-hour long makeup session.
Syamsul, who has never worked with Maya before, was impressed with the level of commitment she brings to set.
“I have met a lot of actresses who are not accommodating. I thought Maya would be like that too. Thankfully I was wrong. She is truly a professional – anything I asked her to do, she not only cooperated but gave me more than what I asked.
“She delivered no matter how many takes I made her do … Fans can expect a performance from Maya like they’ve never seen her before,” elaborated Syamsul.
Maya is grateful that Syamsul wrote a rich character like Sakinah.
“When I accepted the offer, Sakinah was only a supporting role. I hadn’t shot a movie for four years, I thought I will ease myself in with Sakinah.
“Syamsul, however, decided to make the role meatier once I came on board, which was great but it really turned my world upside down,” said Maya.
“But definitely Sakinah is the richest female character Syamsul has written so far.”
Into the fire
There was an immediate buzz on Munafik 2 when the trailer came out in late July.
Within 24 hours, the trailer clocked more than two million views on multiple social media platforms.
According to Syamsul, after the release of the trailer, there was interest from Thailand and Vietnam to showcase Munafik 2 in these countries.
He added that Munafik 2 will be showing in 100 cinemas in Indonesia in September, and that the film opens in Singapore and Brunei on the same day as Malaysia.
Although Syamsul was still adding the final touches to the film even after the trailer came out, he shared the last 30-minutes of the film with a close friend. He said, it brought him to tears.
“I hope the audience will go through different emotions too when watching Munafik 2,” said Syamsul of his 10th film, which already got approval from Censorship Board as well as Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), which looked at the film’s religious content.
“I want them to find the film not only scary, but sad and disturbing. Sad because of what happens with the characters, and disturbing from the perspective of religion.
“I believe, the audience members – especially the Muslims – will get the message in the film.
“The impact that I want to leave with the audience is not on the horror element, but on the sacrifices a person like Ustaz Adam is willing to make as a faithful Muslim in fighting extremism.
“I have a vision with my films,” said Syamsul. “The most important thing is I want to show that Malaysian films can be original, with fresh ideas and strong characters.”
Munafik 2 opens at GSC cinemas nationwide on Aug 30.