If you ask actor and director Syamsul Yusof what is a dream project he’d love to work on, you’d be surprised to learn that it isn’t the action or horror flicks he is known for.

“My favourite films are Forrest Gump, A Beautiful Mind and Ray. They are dramas and biopics,” Syamsul revealed.

It’s a rather unexpected answer from the 32-year-old as his directing credits are of high grossing action-packed films, often drawing viewers inside the gritty world of gangsters (the KL Gangster film series, Abang Long Fadil) and drift racing (the Evolusi KL Drift series). His first foray into horror, Khurafat, was also warmly-received.

“But I’m still afraid because the Malaysian market likes horror and action,” he lets out a sigh before continuing, “I’ve done my market research, there are many who have tried to make dramas and biopics but in terms of sales, they didn’t quite [take off].”

Still, Syamsul, who is the son of prolific director Datuk Yusof Haslam, said he incorporates his love for the drama genre in the films he directs.

“If you watch closely, in every movie that I make, like KL Gangster for example, there are elements of drama and family relationships.”

While the local industry is already rife with action and horror films, Syamsul believes “the way they are presented must be different.”

His second horror offering, Munafik, isn’t just about delivering the scares. It’s about protagonist Ustaz Adam (played by Syamsul)’s journey of faith.

Released in February, Munafik raked in RM17.04mil, making it the third-highest earning Malaysian film of all time after Polis Evo and The Journey.

“I believe in movie making, it’s not about how much money you have, it’s about the idea,” he offered as the reason behind the film’s success.

“That’s why I was willing to spend time, not money, to think of the idea. I try to tackle the audience’s heart with a simple movie.”

The film was made with a production budget of RM1.7mil only.

Munafik not only drew commercial success but critical acclaim as well, picking up five awards at the Malaysia Film Festival this year, including Best Film in the National Language and Best Director.

Munafik’s theme song, Kalah Dalam Menang, became a hit and is now one of 12 songs competing in next year’s Anugerah Juara Lagu.

Syamsul, who has little musical experience, wrote, composed and raps on the hip-hop track with Mawi.

“When we got through to the semi-finals, I thought that was good enough for me. When our song made it to the finals, I was speechless. I felt so small. Who am I? I just started out as a composer, a rapper,” he said.

“It has lit a fire within me. Life is short. Whatever I want to do, I’m just going to do it.”

While it seems the director’s efforts are being met with successes at every turn, it wasn’t too long ago that Syamsul experienced his share of heartaches too.

In 2013, KL Gangster 2 was leaked online a month ahead of its premiere date. Syamsul was so affected by the incident, there was talk he had wanted to quit the industry.

“It’s my love for the art,” he shared what kept him going through those tough times. “I can’t lie to myself. Maybe my mouth said I wanted to quit and do something else, but I love movies. Since I was young, I followed my dad to filming locations. Acting and directing – it’s my life.”