FLY BY NIGHT (2018) review

BUSAN POSTER FBN

In Zahir Omar’s directing debut Fly By Night, which premiered in Busan last month, Sunny Pang plays Tailo, a taxi driver who runs an extortion operation, targeting well-off people for blackmail out of a Kuala Lumpur airport. He’s helped by dour right-hand man Ah Soon (Eric Chen), as well as his ambitious but rash younger brother Sailo (Fabian Loo) and his dim-witted friend Gwailo (Jack Tan). It’s a well-oiled but cautious and modest operation, and Sailo is chomping at the bit to get to higher-paying jobs. Soon, all threatens to go to hell: ruthless inspector Kamal (Bront Palarae) is set off on the four extortionists’ trail, Sailo and Gwailo bite off more than they can chew when they try to blackmail the mistress (Joyce Harn) of a rich businessman, all the while ratcheting up a sizeable debt with demented mobster Jared (Frederick Lee) after killing a man by mistake at his underground casino. With an ailing mother, a wife and a kid to protect, Tailo is left scrambling to avoid the worst.

It can be quite redundant to refer to a feature debut as “assured”: in truth, most directing debuts are assured, by dint of either sheer talent, or complete delusion, or simply the firm, guiding hand of a more experienced filmmaker in the production department. What we should really note, though, is when said assurance is backed by actual depth and power in storytelling, and in that respect Zahir Omar just made a fine entrance into Asian genre filmmaking. There’s nothing new in his story of small-time crime spiraling into tragedy, if only perhaps the ‘Malaysianness’ of it: though a prime shooting location for big-budget Asian films (Dante Lam’s The Viral Factor, Oxide Pang’s The Conspirators or Lien Yi Chi’s Peace Breaker, to name but a few), Malaysia doesn’t really have much a crime subgenre in its own cinema. Here, the ethnic diversity of Kuala Lumpur is constantly heard in the dialogues, switching from Bahasa Malay to Cantonese to Mandarin (perhaps with more shades of dialects and accents than our French ears can catch), while the status of one of the extortionists’ victims as a “Dato” – a Malay honorific title – is a trigger in the film’s disastrous chain of events: the police would not be mobilized on small-time extortion, if a Dato hadn’t been among the victims. Such Malaysian touches distinguish Fly By Night from the many films it resembles.

Omar takes his sweet time setting up the vice in which his characters will be crushed: for a good 45 minutes, the film simmers gently as we witness them doing what they do. It’s plenty enough time to understand that they’re all rogues, to varying degrees of darkness; amusingly, it takes a little while to realize that Bront Palarae’s rapacious Kamal is a actually a cop: he’s introduced psychologically tormenting a man, much in the way that Frederick Lee’s Jared, a cackling gargoyle of a mobster – is introduced moments later. And while Ah Soon is an image of sturdy loyalty, he resorts to torture with as much ease as Kamal and Jared, while Sailo and Gwailo have only the apparent harmlessness of youth, with naivety and stupidity seemingly the only things preventing them from being as cruel as the rest. What makes Tailo (a commanding turn by Sunny Pang) stand above – albeit only slightly – is not simply his quiet dignity, but mostly the fact that his main concern is his family, to whom he wants to offer a better life with the fruit of his crimes. The others are all fending for themselves, a cop cruising for bribes and advancement, a mobster, and two wannabe thugs hoping for quick money.

And so despite the scrambling all moral signals, a requisite of the underground noir vibe he shoots for, Omar’s film retains a discreet moral center. His style is both grounded – no ornate shots, no fancy editing gimmicks, but a welcome lack of jittery, arty “vérité” – and slightly stylized – if only because an equatorial metropolis’ night-life is stylized in essence by its sweltering atmosphere and gaudy lighting. He doesn’t shy away from showing brutal violence, but doesn’t revel in it either, avoiding a familiar trapping of ‘assured’ genre feature debut which try to stand out with unflinching brutality. Too bad, though, that there are both underdeveloped plot strands (Joyce Harn’s vengeful mistress turns the tables impressively, then is put on a narrative backburner) and very convenient plot stitches (ah, the old incriminating tape-ex-machina) that soften the film’s final blow.

Long Story Short: A strong directing debut for Zahir Omar, Fly By Night has enough depth, style and Malaysian touches to offset its overly familiar elements and the occasional shortcomings of its writing. ***

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