In the 2017 action flick J Revolusi, Zul Ariffin plays an elite special force soldier who gets beaten up by a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter. In Sangkar, Zul plays an MMA fighter. This, as it turns out, is no coincidence.
It was while filming J Revolusi and working with the film’s fight choreographer, Saiful Reza, that Zul got the idea of making a film that uses MMA fights as its base.
Together with Saiful, Zul worked out the blueprint for Sangkar, scheduled for theatrical release on Aug 29.
“MMA fights have been gaining popularity among Malaysians in the past couple of years, so we thought it would be the perfect time to make Malaysia’s first Malay MMA film,” shared Zul, 33 at a recent interview.
“But, at the same time, we wanted the film to be more than just about MMA fights .... we knew it had to have an emotional core to drive it forward.”
Their skeletal idea was then fleshed out with a script by Mira Mustaffa and received the direction of Kabir Bhatia.
The husband-and-wife team is responsible for some of Malaysia’s most heartfelt films such as Pulang and Nur Kasih: The Movie. Hence, Sangkar revolves around two complex characters and their rather complicated relationship, inside and outside of the ring.
One of the film’s producers, Gayatri Su-lin Pillai, elaborated: “Sangkar offers something different to the Malaysian film landscape. It’s an action sports movie, but there is also drama, humour and love in the film which features flawed characters as its protagonists.
“It’s not a violent movie; the sports action is violent but it’s kept within the scope of the sport.”
According to her, audiences who are not into MMA can still figure out what’s going on.
“The viewers will know who is winning, and who is not when watching the film. What’s important to follow in Sangkar is the journey of the main character who starts out as a not-so nice guy to become a better man,” she continued.
The beauty of MMA
Sangkar centres on Adam (Zul) and Johan (Remy Ishak), two MMA fighters trying to make a name in the field.
Unfortunately, Adam is not the most even-tempered guy and his bad mood gets the better of him during an argument with Johan after a fight, and the latter ends up in the hospital, seriously injured.
Feeling guilty about what he’s done, Adam seeks to right the wrong by taking on an impossible fight in the ring to earn extra cash to help out Johan’s family.
But this path proves to be a challenging one, especially when Adam’s abusive father keeps bringing out the worst in him.
While the characters may be the most important factor in Sangkar, everyone involved was equally adamant about ensuring the MMA fight scenes come off as authentic as possible on the big screen.
This ultimately meant, some of the punches and kicks had actual contact.
Zul explained: “There were a few hits that we had to execute for real. (The scenes where) I smashed Remy’s face, some of them were real ... we discussed beforehand which one works with a real punch and which ones we can get away with (camera works).
“We want to show the beauty of MMA, so we put in a lot of effort into the fighting sequences to make it all look convincing,” added Zul, naming Rocky and Southpaw as some of his favourite sports-based films.
One of the ways, he figured, was to get real MMA fighters involved in the movie.
Cameos in Sangkar include English MMA fighter James “Sledgehammer” McSweeney, One Championship athlete Saiful “The Vampire” Merican, KL-based Uzbekistan boxer Davron Kuronboev and Malaysian bodybuilding icon Terry Gallyot.
Having the fighters on set helped with the choreography of the fight sequences as well, said Zul.
“They tell you all the rules and regulations, which you cannot keep track of in your head all the time. So that was good,” Zul added.
There was so much testosterone swirling on set, but everyone involved pulled their weight to make sure no one got hurt. The film set had medics standing by to make sure any injuries were looked into immediately during the fight sequences.
“As long as no one needed to be hospitalised, we continued filming,” stated Zul.
However, he admitted, that both he and Remy had a bit of health issues while trying to put on massive weight for their roles.
“When McSweeney agreed to be in our film, both Remy and I had to increase our weight classes just so our characters don’t look too small (when filming) next to him.”
Zul’s and Remy’s usual weights are 77kg and 75kg respectively, while McSweeney’s number on the scale is 120kg.
“Our bodies did get a bit chaotic in our attempt to put on so much weight in a short period of time,” confessed Zul.
“After I shot Misteri Dilaila, I ate and ate and ate. But I only had two weeks to put on all that weight. I went up as high as 93kg, whereas Remy reached 84kg and that was his maximum ... But it was OK, because on camera we looked big,” Zul said.
The Taiping-born actor who carved out fame after the 2014 drama series Rindu Awak 200%, is becoming quite an action star on the big screen with J Revolusi and Tombiruo on his resume.
It also helps that Zul has been actively pursuing martial arts in his free time.
“I like boxing. I even thought about competing in boxing but due to the (filming) schedule I couldn’t participate,” said Zul, who has been learning boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai in the past years.
“I like action films. I am not young any more, but I am keen on making action films especially now, when local action film is hot.
“I think not everyone wants to see love stories, so the action film is gaining interest. And I am happy to do it,” said Zul who is signed on to star in the sequel to J Revolusi after its success.
Similarly if Sangkar is received well, Zul is interested to make a second film revolving around MMA.
“We have talked about (the sequel); it’s not that hard. The challenge is the first film. This has to be a hit first for us to continue.”
Sangkar opens at GSC cinemas nationwide on Aug 29.