Western horror films are more in your face: jump scares and fake blood for instant gratification. To me, it’s like eating McDonald’s. You can binge, leave, and it doesn’t stay in your consciousness. Asian horror is more interesting because it’s subtle. It works through your psyche. Take the popular Japanese, Korean and Thai ones that work well in Singapore – we don’t have to understand the language to appreciate them. With Asian films, there’s tension and buildup, plus a moral that stays with you after.
Every Singaporean knows the Pontianak. At camps, we exchange ghost stories in hushed voices to scare each other. The Pontianak is a hideous, vengeful female spirit who seeks revenge after dying in childbirth or from male-inflicted violence. She's usually cloaked in a long, white dress with her dark hair hung long and unkempt. Her presence is hinted at through a strong, frangipani scent that then evolves to an unbearable stench. Legend has it, when you see a beautiful woman alone at night, you must not make eye contact. She just might turn into the ghastly figure and rip you apart with her long, sharp nails.
The golden age of Malay cinema
For me, the Pontianak character has always been a source of fascination. I grew up watching countless old, Malay-language horror films in the 70s. This was during the tail end of the golden age of Malay cinema, which spanned from the late 1940s to early 1970s. During its heyday, hundreds of Malay films were filmed and produced in Singapore by two major local film empires: Cathay-Keris Studio and Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions.
On 27 April 1957, at the stroke of midnight, Cathay-Keris Studio premiered a film that would forever be ingrained into the Singaporean psyche. This was Pontianak, directed by the prolific B.N. Rao, starring the beautiful Maria Menado as the titular character. Pontianak ran for almost three months at Cathay cinemas, its success was unprecedented.
Pontianak spawned two sequels by B.N. Rao: Dendam Pontianak (Revenge of the Pontianak, 1957) and Sumpah Pontianak (Curse of the Pontianak, 1958), setting the benchmark for the horror genre locally. Shaw produced its own trilogy – Anak Pontianak (Son of Pontianak, 1958), Pontianak Kembali (The Pontianak Returns, 1963) and Pusaka Pontianak (The Pontianak Legacy, 1965).
Growing up watching these classic local horror films, I always asked: why is she so demonised? Why is she considered a ‘bad’ ghost? My own reasoning was that a ghost’s discomfort always stems from unfinished business. And this unfinished business could be with loved ones.
This was the genesis of my latest film: Revenge of the Pontianak. I wanted to seek out the answers to the questions that have stayed with me since I was a child. I sought to tell the story from her perspective for a change, to see and understand the motivations behind her actions.
From left: Gavin Yap, Remy Ishak, Nur Fazura and Glen Goei
Creating a shared narrative
Beyond that, I wanted to pay homage to these great Pontianak films. Younger Singaporeans are fed with a steady diet of super-Westernised Hollywood films. I sometimes feel a tinge of regret that their childhood hasn’t been imbued with the same sort of local stories that my generation had access to.
These local Malay films were a beautiful amalgamation of the diverse cultures in South and Southeast Asia. Chinese producers owned the studios and greenlit the projects; Indians and Filipinos directed and wrote scripts; Malays acted in the movies and composed music. By the early 1960s, Malays took on the role of director too. Films during this era were embraced and beloved by Singaporeans and Malaysians. They were unique to us, and our identities.
Local stories and folklore are no longer a big part of the Singaporean consciousness. But I strongly feel that we have a responsibility to tell our own stories. We need to keep our culture and heritage alive.
Revenge of the Pontianak is now showing at Golden Village cinemas.