Exploring the Seventh realm

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Lee (left) and Koh posing at SKT Studios which produced Seventh. Photos by Sam Fong

I ADMIT that I’m not a horror movie buff. I don’t appreciate getting up at the slightest sound at night, or randomly having scary images just as I drift off to sleep but when the opportunity to review a locally-produced Chinese horror movie, Seventh, came along, much to my surprise, I said “yes”.

Seventh tells the story of two friends — Dylan, also known as Cannon, and Mimi — who want to win an online photography contest themed Supernatural. The duo make their way to a well-known haunted mansion in hopes of capturing the ‘hantu susu’ because legend had it that the ghost haunted this particular mansion. Little did they know they were in for a week-long adventure.

Unbeknown to the pair, the caretaker of the mansion, whom they initially obtained permission from to stay in the mansion, passes away suddenly. As a sign of respect for the demised soul as per Chinese funeral rites, they keep a vigil for seven nights. Dylan and Mimi, together with the late caretaker’s grandson Yi, keep a vigil and encounter a myriad experiences throughout the seven days. But be prepared for a thickening plot and a twist near the end.

In the Buddhist and Taoist funeral traditions, it is believed that the soul of the deceased stays in limbo for seven days and lingers in the house. This is why family members, especially the younger ones, must keep vigil — to accompany the soul. The burial or cremation for the deceased is done on the seventh day and this is how the movie got its title.

Creative director Ryon Lee said he drew inspiration for Seventh from his own experience. He asserts that Seventh is not a sequel to his previous movie ‘The Transcend’, despite both having similar traits that portray Malaysian Chinese customs and the existence of the paranormal realm.

Lee said Seventh was shot entirely in Malaysia namely in Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor, and Bentong, in Pahang, and is made up of 60% from his own personal experience while he kept vigil at his grandfather’s funeral almost two years ago. He jokingly added that he was only able to feel his grandfather’s presence during the wake but he never actually saw anything.

“But, my other family members saw my grandfather’s soul wandering around the house during the wake,” Lee said.

Keeping vigil made him think about how little time he had spent with his Penang-based family due to work commitments and how this was a common situation for many Malaysians. This led to the rapid mushrooming of old folks homes around the country and this, he said, was very disturbing.

It was from this disturbing thought and the feeling of guilt of being so far from home that Lee began writing the script for Seventh. Lee who also wrote the script for Malaysia’s highest grossing film ‘The Journey’ kept to his penchant for intertwining messages in his movies and in Seventh, he highlights the importance of reciprocating love and care for the older generation.

“The bottom line is, caring for your elders is important. If you leave them at an old folks home and promise to either visit them or to take them home after a certain time frame and have no intention to keep your promise, it will only hurt them,” Lee told The Edge Financial Daily recently.

Keeping in mind the rising emphasis on wealth, Lee looks to touch the younger generation to prod them to ponder over the priorities in life.

So why use horror instead of other genres like drama?

Lee offered his opinion that the horror genre is “borderless,” adding: “It is a universal genre. We watch horror films from Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Hollywood but the objective of all these films is the same. There is no language barrier.”

But producer Aron Koh interjected to say: “Seventh is an entirely different story altogether and it’s not your typical horror flick. There is much more to it.”

Prouder still, Koh proclaimed that Seventh is not only a made-by-Malaysian product but has elements that most Malaysians would be able to relate to.

“We wanted to keep it relatable, which is why we used the ‘hantu susu’ as the main character and portrayed local Chinese customs.

“While Mandarin is the main language in dialogues, dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese as well as Bahasa Malaysia and English are also used throughout the film,” Koh added.

Both Lee and Koh aspire to build the horror genre in Malaysia and what better way than to tap in and groom the next generation of the film industry.

Chin (left) and Thian during one of the scenes at the mansion.

“I can safely say that 99% of my team and crew from pre-production, production and post-production are Malaysians,” Koh said.

“To add, this movie has about 255 computer generated image (CGI) shots — more than any of my previous projects. There was one scene that took six months to complete in post-production because the detailing of the CGI shot needed to be perfect and we wanted it to be as realistic as possible.”

Lee said he took about two months to finalise the script and 35 days for shooting. The bulk of the work was done in post-production. Thus far, Koh spent a total of RM1.8 million to produce Seventh.

“I have spent about RM585,000 on advertising and promotional efforts and another RM400,000 on top notch CGI shots.

“I believe I have done everything to the best of my ability. The director and actors have also done their best and so now, we will leave it to fate and Malaysians to decide if it was all worth our efforts,” a hopeful Koh said.

Seventh, which opened at cinemas yesterday (Oct 16) stars Gino Chai from Taiwan, Mindee Ong from Singapore, Teddy Chin and Kim Thian from Malaysia. It runs for a total of 99 minutes.

Speaking at a press conference after the premiere screening of the movie recently, Chai, a newcomer to the big screen, said learning to speak Bahasa Malaysia proved to be the most challenging hurdle.

“There were times when I did not understand the syntax of what I was saying because the words meant nothing to me. But, when the director and Mindee explained the meaning of the words, it was only then I began to get into the words and that was easier for me to learn the language.

“Even then, I took three days to learn everything [in the script],” Chai said.

Malaysians Thian and Chin said because their characters were written to be humorous, this allowed them to keep improvising the lines as they were filming.

“We knew the structure of the scene and what it was about, so we kept improvising every scene and every take to the point that the director stopped us [from improvising] because it would be a lot of work in the editing process,” Thian said laughingly, as Chin nodded in agreement.

Seventh is a good effort and it really has a lot of local elements in it. The biggest tip I can offer you is to go in without any expectation and be open to every perception that you can draw from the movie. At the end, it comes down to what Koh said: “It is up to the audience and how they want to perceive it.”

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 17, 2014.