Image from Astro Shaw
Polis Evo behind the scenes. Photo courtesy of Astro Shaw

When a young and hopeful filmmaker from Terengganu released his debut feature film, he had absolutely no idea how the Malaysian movie-goers would respond. The film, which began production after a year of writing, rewriting and editing six script drafts with his co-writers, hit RM13 million in the box office in its third week of screening.

“I definitely did not expect the numbers,” Joel Soh said humbly when I met him last week. “I mean, people are not obliged to watch the film. But I’m glad they did.” As of now, Polis Evo is the highest grossing Malay movie of 2015, falling shortly behind The Journey.

The movie, which is directed by Ghaz Abu Bakar and set mainly in Terengganu, revolves around two strikingly different policemen, played by Shaheizy Sam and Zizan Razak, who have to overcome their differences to take down a drug trafficking syndicate. Sounds clichéd? Perhaps, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

The writers, Joel Soh, Kyle Goonting and Anwari Ashraf were all recipients of Astro Scholarship Awards, which had given them an opportunity to further their studies in filmmaking in three different countries – United Kingdom, the United States of America and Australia.

The writers of Polis Evo, from left Anwari, Kyle and Joel.
The writers of Polis Evo, from left Anwari, Kyle and Joel.

“I believe we were a good combination of minds when it comes to scriptwriting,” Joel explained confidently. “Each country treats their films differently, so it’s a good thing that we all graduated from three different countries – it definitely added to the skillset needed to produce good films.”

But regardless of their exposure, their main influence is still deeply Malaysian, and this is one of the reasons why Polis Evo had garnered its success: the film is set in Terengganu, complete with local accents and traditions. Even native Malay speakers had to rely on the subtitles at times.

When I asked the obvious question why they had chosen this particular place as the main setting, Joel laughed. “If I had to be politically correct, I’d say I’ve seen way too much of KL on movie screens and TV,” he joked. “But personally, it’s my hometown and I think it’s a beautiful place with a beautiful culture and a beautiful language. I wanted the rest of Malaysia to see it too.”

When asked why the writers had chosen action as their first feature film, Joel explained that besides being big fans of the genre, the writers also felt the need to fill in the gap in the Malaysian film industry. “Our action movies are mainly about gangsters, and you can see that from how well KL Gangster 1 & 2 did in the cinemas. We wanted to do a similar genre but with a different concept.”

 

“We did aim to deliver something at least as good as Bad Boys 1.”

 

Even though the whole buddy-cop concept is well-trodden material in Hollywood, it’s not been seen so much in Malaysia. On top of that, the film had all the right elements injected at all the right times, with a good dose of action, thrill, drama and comedy.

“Action movies can’t be all stunts and no emotions,” Joel said. “In fact, my favourite scene in the movie was the bromance scene between Khai and Sani, where Khai opened-up about his life. It was the most difficult scene to write and shoot.”

Who knew the most difficult scene to perfect in an action film would be the emotional scene between two grown men?

“Maybe that’s why it’s difficult,” he laughed. “The transitions from action-packed to the case at hand to a happy family to a confessional scene were a delicate thing to handle. We had to make sure it flowed smoothly for the audience to get the most out of it.”

On top of a good balance in terms of content and context, the movie’s success was also due to the realistic and clear goal that the writers had in mind. Joel had explained, “We were well aware that we did not have neither the budget nor the expertise to deliver The Avengers, or even Bad Boys 2. But we did aim to deliver something at least as good as Bad Boys 1.”

Bad Boys 1 was directed by Michael Bay and released in 1995. Its box office grossing was around $65,000,000.

“Hollywood did it 20 years ago, so there is no reason why we could not do it now. We wanted to set that as the benchmark for our local action films now.”

But of course, good scripts and goal-planning were only half the effort. The execution, otherwise known as the production, was another thing altogether. The movie would not have been what it is if it not for the perfect combination of the minds of the producer (Joel Soh) and his creative team: director Ghaz Abu Bakar, cinematographer Haris Hue Abdullah, stunt coordinator Wong Choon Meng and production designer Nazrul Asraff Mahzan.

 

“Initially we wanted a dynamic duo that’s never been paired on screen before”

 

“I guess I was blessed to have such an honest and sincere team,” explained Joel. “They weren’t afraid to redo and re-edit certain scenes until everyone was satisfied with the outcome.”

Besides the crew, the cast also contributed a huge chunk of the movie’s success. “Initially we wanted a dynamic duo that’s never been paired on screen before, and we thought Shaheizy Sam and Zizan Razak would make a good one – they both had almost the same physique but with distinct styles and delivery in terms of acting.” Even though it sounded like a good idea, Joel did not deny that there was a tinge of doubt as to whether the chemistry between the two would do the characters justice. “It was still a gamble,” he said.

However, fortunately for them, both Shaheizy Sam (who played tough, serious-guy Inspector Khai) and Zizan Razak (who played laid-back and rational Inspector Sani), had worked together from the script-reading to build their own chemistry for the movie. “They took the time to get to know each other and they were both highly dedicated in delivering their best. We sometimes shot for 30 hours and they did not complain. Not even once,” claimed Joel proudly. “I feel like we hit the jackpot with them.”

Image from Star2
Photo via Star2

As an average cinema-goer, I believe that the film’s authenticity was key to its appeal. Even though I’ve never really been exposed to the protocol and practices of the Malaysian police, something felt oddly real when I watched the way they worked in the movie. Having said that, it came to me as no surprise when Joel explained that they had worked closely together with PDRM since the script-development stages of the movie. “They did not touch the plot of the film, but they certainly contributed a lot in ways to enhance the scenes and make them better.”

On top of meeting the writers, advising them on protocol and discussing ways to make the movie better, the police also contributed men as extras in the movie. “They were very excited about their acting debut,” Joel laughed. “But in all seriousness,” he added, “whatever people say or think about the Malaysian police, I honestly did not see that here. All I saw was their willingness to help and make the film what it is.”

Joel Soh may be a newcomer in the industry, but he is not short of wisdom to be shared among those in his profession. “All I can say to filmmakers out there is – give the audience the best that you can, because like I said previously, they are not obliged to watch your movies and support your work.” He added firmly, “If at any point you feel that there is something wrong with any parts or scenes in the films you’re working on, don’t sleep until you fix it. Don’t leave it and simply hope that the audience will be okay with it.”

With a (first) feature film that does so well in terms of box office, what else could you possibly hope for? “I just hope that this movie’s success will encourage other filmmakers out there,” said Joel. “If we can do it, so can you, so go ahead and do it. Go ahead and add more colours and variety into our local industry.”

Perseverance, hard work and honesty – the three main ingredients used to make the movie, are also the three main virtues that were brilliantly portrayed in the movie. I guess it’s true what they say – when you put your heart and soul into something – it will surely show. For Polis Evo, it has definitely paid off.

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