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Any Malaysian filmgoer visiting the cinemas this year knew the movie to watch was Ola Bola. The highly anticipated film grossed USD600,000 (RM2.5 million) in its first four days of release, and almost USD2 million (RM8 million) in the first two weeks. It received widespread praise, and such was its popularity that a local news site asked whether there was an “Ola Bola overload”.

A fictionalised account of the Malaysian national football team’s qualification for the 1980 Olympic Games, one of the country’s sporting milestones, Ola Bola was the pet topic of director Chiu Keng Guan, who had wanted to make a film about football since the beginning of his career.

“I played during college,” says the 44-year-old as we sit on the steps of Kuala Lumpur’s Stadium Merdeka, looking out across the sun-weathered pitch. “I was a striker and supported all the good teams. I really liked Liverpool; my idol was Ian Rush.”

Although he hung up his football boots a long time ago, he never lost interest in the beautiful game, which, he says, reveals a great deal about a person’s character. “Football is about team spirit, it’s about overcoming difficulties.”   

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Indeed, the public was not only enamoured with the film’s nostalgia for an era when Malaysian football was respected across Asia but as Teresa Kok, one of Malaysia’s Members of Parliament, wrote on her Facebook page: “There are a lot of values we can learn from this movie – patriotism, team spirit, (and) self-sacrifice. I am so glad and proud that Malaysia can produce such a movie.”

“What was important about the team was that when facing adversity or success, they did it together. They didn’t give up. They fought for national pride,” Chiu says. “That’s what I hope the young ones can learn from it.”

Chiu certainly sees Ola Bola as a parable for modern-day Malaysia, but would balk at the idea of being considered a social commentator. Cutting a humble figure, he is softly spoken with an abiding, anxious grin. He frequently ponders his choice of words before unleashing them in long, meandering sentences, pausing for a hearty chuckle every now and then.

Born in Batu Pahat, a district in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor, Chiu’s path to becoming one of Malaysia’s most respected directors was a winding one. He studied graphic design at university, but in his twenties, after chancing upon an advert for a job at a local film production company, he applied and was employed in quality assurance. This allowed him to watch films endlessly and, during his lunch breaks, to teach himself how to use editing consoles. Realising that filmmaking was his calling, he later enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy.

After returning to Malaysia, Chiu made his name with a trilogy of films targeted at the Chinese Lunar New Year market: WooHoo! in 2010, Great Day the following year, and The Journey in 2014. It was the latter that cemented his reputation, bringing in more than USD4 million (RM17 million) at the box office, ranking as one of the three highest-grossing Malaysian films.

“I didn’t expect the response,” Chiu says. “As a filmmaker, after such a success, there has to be a reset. You have to prepare for the next movie. Maybe, the greatest success as a director is to have people waiting for your next movie.”

He knew that after The Journey, there would be much more pressure. “There were greater expectations and, perhaps, there was slightly more of an expectation on the box office side. But when I started to develop a new story, I left all of this aside,” he says.

In fact, he adds, a director with money on the mind probably won’t be successful. Instead, authenticity should be the guiding principle. Chiu regularly casts unknown actors, and insists that passion and drive are just as important as experience. For Ola Bola, the majority of the cast had never acted professionally before; one of the leading actors was an engineering student, another a quantity surveyor.

Nevertheless, he admits that making a film about football was tougher than expected. “It involved a lot of manpower because with 22 players you need to control everything,” he says. For example, he adds, a different style of football was played in the 1980s compared to today, which meant he had to train the actors to play differently than they were used to. What’s more, filming a football match is not the same as filming a normal scene, which can be stopped every minute or two, he says. Instead, he would film for five minutes at a time. “It was a really new experience. But every time I finish one movie, I get a different experience and learn from it. This is my fourth movie, and I suppose I’m becoming more systematic.”

When asked what he is planning for his fifth, Chiu says he’s awash with ideas. “For me, I always have new ideas. Even this morning, something happened and I thought, ‘That could be a movie.’ So I let the ideas sit in my mind and, after some time, they mature and jump out and become the next one. I have an idea for a love story, and an action-comedy,” he enthuses. “But I’m not sure which one I’ll pursue.”

Regardless of which idea finds its way to the big screen, Chiu has helped revitalise the country’s film industry.

“It’s becoming really good. A great sign is that we have a lot of young, up-and-coming filmmakers. And I’m sure it will get even better in the future,” he says, adding with a humble grin, “and they’ll be able to make better films than this old man can.”

Watch Ola Bola on your in-flight entertainment system. Check your system to see which channel it is on.