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Malaysia does its comedies and lightweight dramas, and occasionally a stagnant art house indie, but gritty neo-noir is a rare bird from its film industry. That could change with even a modicum of success for first-time director Zahir Omar’s Fly by Night, a bloody, vivid, polished crime thriller with style to burn and a grim, fatalistic heart, and which adheres to its genre conventions while managing to make them seem fresh and unpredictable.
Making its world premiere at Busan, Omar’s entertaining and surprisingly nuanced genre pic deserves an audience. Fly by Night should find a warm welcome in Asia-Pacific, where its inspirations will be instantly recognized, and overseas it’s a lock for the genre circuit. Though it’s visually engaging, giant televisions make streaming and download services a good option, and the film would slot in nicely alongside the likes of The Night Comes for Us, which is streaming straight off its premiere at Fantastic Fest.
Starting off with a shady meeting between two petty criminals set to a smartly out-of-place country-blues soundtrack, things get even shadier fast as we’re introduced to a quartet of Kuala Lumpur cabbies running an extortion racket. The gang, led by the calculating Boss (Sunny Pang, Headshot), includes his younger brother Ah Wai (Fabian Loo) and his best chum Gwailo (Jack Tan), and is about to welcome its newest member, Ah Soon (Eric Chen), an old family friend and recently released ex-con. With a heads-up from Ah Wai’s airport worker wife Michelle (Ruby Yap) on rich marks needing a taxi, the world’s worst Uber drivers take notes on who the passenger is, where they live and how they might best be exploited for blackmail cash later on. The Boss insists they keep things modest, controlled and untraceable, opting to amass their fortune a little at a time.
Up to this point, Omar and co-writers Ivan Yeo and Frederick Bailey carefully lay the groundwork according to crime thriller rules, and the archetypes are sketched out in efficient strokes: Ah Wai and his Boss brother butt heads over the organization’s direction. Ah Wai is ambitious, reckless and getting greedy. The Boss insists on careful planning and knowing the target. Gwailo is blindly devoted to Ah Wai, as is Ah Soon to the Boss. We know where this is going, but Omar takes his time building the foundations meticulously, one layer at a time and increasing the tension slowly. Omar’s Kuala Lumpur is one of saturated primary colors and deep blacks (almost tactile in their density, shot by Low Soon Keong) that looks like it’s on the verge of violence every minute of the day.
Eventually, the final layers are added — those being a target, Reanne (Joyce Harn), a seemingly standard jilted mistress that Ah Wai and Gwailo think they can wing on their own, and the dogged cop Kamal (Bront Palarae), who is on to the taxi crew and lurking in their favorite spots. Kamal is hardly the jovial Keystone Kop he tries to pass himself off as, and the Boss decides it’s time to lay low. Problem is, Ah Wai and Gwailo have jumped the gun on their windfall and gotten psychotic big-time gangster Jared (Frederick Lee, practically reprising his role from the Taiwanese thriller The Scoundrels) after them. As the various paths begin to converge, things really go to hell.
Though Fly by Night is a technically assured film with a uniformly strong cast, anchored by Pang at the dignified center and the wholly engaging Palarae as a key, manipulative component, it is the little details that give it its vivid character. Kamal’s casual conclusion that the taxi robberies have been assigned a priority after a wealthy Dato (a common Malaysian honorific indicating status) becomes a victim is telling, and Kuala Lumpur’s ethnic and linguistic diversity give the film a real sense of place. Above all, it feels like there are actual emotional stakes involved as a secondary narrative about a family on the verge of collapse emerges amid the violent clutter. Sure, this is genre filmmaking, but Omar is so confident in his storytelling and construction it makes it really gripping genre filmmaking, and Omar the commercial jolt the Malaysian industry could use.
Production companies: Another Planet, Jazzy Pictures, Plush
Cast: Sunny Pang, Jack Tan, Fabian Loo, Eric Chen, Bront Palarae, Frederick Lee, Ruby Yap, Pearlly Chua, Joyce Harn, Shuan Chen, Sarah Lian, Joko Anwar
Director: Zahir Omar
Screenwriters: Ivan Yeo, Frederick Bailey, Zahir Omar
Producers: Mo Bahir, Leonard Tee
Executive producers: Perin Petrus, Farouk Aljoffrey, Joanne Goh
Director of photography: Low Soon Keong
Production designer: Nick Wong
Editor: Dom Heng
Casting: Esther Teh
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: Good Move Media
In Mandarin, Malay and Cantonese
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