In a recent chat with actor Bront Palarae, he told me how everyone in the industry was excited to work with young director Zahir Omar (Bront cheekily poked fun at how not-so-young Zahir is) upon watching his short film K-Hole. K-Hole won the first-ever BMW Shorties back in 2007.
Funnily enough, instead of making a feature film as many hoped he would, Zahir took a hard left turn and ventured into the world of commercial/corporate filmmaking. (In my interview with Zahir, he told me he did so because at the time he felt that he wasn’t quite ready to helm a feature film.) But now, 12 years after his short film took home the grand prize at BMW Shorties, Zahir is back in the game with his first ever feature film, Fly By Night.
It’s easy to see why people were eager to work with Zahir. The dude is a bloody rockstar of a director. If Zahir Omar was a musician, he would be the kind that stormed the stage wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and an ESP Wavecaster. He would shred till his hands bleed, raise a middle finger (or two) in the air, headbang till he dislocates his neck, and then smash his guitar on the floor. And everyone in the audience would have a rocking good time. Fly By Night isn’t a masterpiece (and I’ll get to that later), but it is damned good and easily the most punk rock Malaysian film ever made.
It is set in a fictional unnamed city that breathes like Kuala Lumpur but isn’t Kuala Lumpur. By doing this, Zahir manages to avoid most of the landmines set by the annoying Film Censorship Board of Malaysia. But this made-up world feels lived in and designed with such care for detail. Take the small scene where a man lights some incense while talking to his mother. It takes three to four clicks before the lighter lights and his mother says “they don’t make it like they used to anymore.”
Was that line ad-lib I wonder, or was it a part of the script? Whatever the case, three clicks instead of one adds to the realism of the world. There are also underground gambling rings with neon lights and narrow corridors that lead to houses with stuffy living rooms where a small TV is always on even when no one is watching. It is here where our lead characters sit and eat greasy Hokkien Mee right out of their plastic packets.
The film is about a family who’re part-time taxi drivers, full-time thieving gangsters. When the younger sibling decides to do a job behind his brother’s back, it lands him in hot soup with a bunch of different people and then… sh*t happens. But Fly By Night isn’t necessarily about a particular plot. Here, Zahir Omar has built a world that is dusty, grimy, stinky (yes, it has a stench to it), violent and often very funny. He fills this world with gangsters, cops with broken moral compasses, thirsty adulterous husbands, revenge-hungry girlfriends, gambling dens, and loads of cigarette smoke. The screenplay by Zahir, Dain Said, Fredrick Bailey and Ivan Yeo consists of a few storylines that weave and interlock with one another in an exciting and thrilling manner.
The characters themselves all have big personalities brought to life by magnetic performances across the board that had my eyes peeled from start to finish. Sunny Pang plays Tailo, the always calm and collected leader of the small crew of gangster cabbies. Forever by his side is Ah Soon (Eric Chen) who’s ever ready to jam a screwdriver down your ear. Tailo’s brother, Sailo is performed by Fabian Loo, a punk-ass showoff who overestimates his abilities and thinks he’s better than everybody else.
There’s also his good friend Gwailo, played by Jack Tan who’s smart and would’ve been far better off in life if it wasn’t for his gambling addiction. Then there’s Bront Palarae’s Kamal, a cop who always gets the job done but mostly through questionable methods. Bront reminds me of my high school discipline teacher who had the ability to make us piss our pants without even raising his voice. And finally, Frederick Lee’s Jared, a big-time crime boss whose suits are as loud and as his personality. Lee has the least amount of screentime but it’s his work you’ll be talking about the most when the end credits roll.
These characters don’t move in a singular direction. They’re not necessarily trying to achieve a specific objective, rather the film takes each one of them, puts them in tough situations and have them punch, claw, shoot and drive their way out, only to find themselves in tougher situations. And we watch, with our eyes wide open and glued to the screen, asses at the edge of our seats, enamoured by the goings-on.
It’s difficult to explain the tone of the film. It’s not quite a drama, though there are dramatic moments. It’s not quite a thriller, though the film offers plenty of heart-racing thrills, which includes wonderfully directed and choreographed chase sequences and violence that will make you squirm and look away. It’s not quite a comedy (heh, maybe it is) though plenty of scenes are hilariously crude.
Zahir Omar has mentioned that the works of the great Quentin Tarantino are one of the reasons why he fell in love with film in the first place. And perhaps Tarantino-esque is the best way to describe the tone of Fly By Night — bonkers, rojak and completely off the rails. Even the amazing musical score by Zane Adam (one of the film’s biggest highlights) will remind you of a Tarantino event. It’s not easy to make a film like this. It takes a special talent to balance various genres; to make an absolutely ridiculous movie that has an absolutely ridiculous shootout and an even more ridiculous bar fight that ends in flames yet somehow feels grounded and believable at the same time. Zahir nails it. And all the actors nail it. The tone of the film allows them the space to exaggerate and be overt and theatrical with their performances. There isn’t a single scene in Fly By Night that isn’t entertaining.
I only wish the film would’ve been longer. Running at slightly over 90 minutes, the film feels overly condensed. There’s a reason why the gangster epics of Tarantino, Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have a two and a half to three-hour-long runtime. There needs to be enough room for the plethora characters to breathe and for their arcs to stretch out. The characters in Fly By Night have large personalities, anchored by superb performances, but their writing lacks nuance. I wish there are more of the smaller scenes — talking scenes — where characters would sit around the table and have conversations about life and relationships or just bust each other’s balls while getting drunk.
The film could’ve also benefited from quieter romantic scenes between Sailo and his wife, who’s roped into their unlawful trade. Think of the gut-wrenching moment in The Godfather Part II where Michael Corleone slaps his wife Kay Adams. That moment is powerful not just because of its domestic violence, but because we think about the scenes in The Godfather where Michael was kind and fiercely in love with his Kay. Here, we don’t experience the gangster family at its highest of highs, so their lowest of lows doesn’t quite pack a punch of Muhammad Ali, but of an Olympic boxer (which is still high praise where I’m from). Bront Palarae’s character Kamal gets a big moment towards the end of the movie. And while it’s very interesting, it isn’t quite heart stopping because we don’t spend enough time with him. We see shades of his character, but never quite explore the full spectrum of his morals.
Why are we in such a hurry to get to the bigger, more exhilarating bits these days? Last year’s One Two Jaga (another movie that I really like) also had too short of a runtime. The opening wedding sequence in The Godfather is one of the best sequences ever put to film and a master class in character exploration. It’s almost a half hour long and it consists of characters just having organic conversations. Characters just being. In Pulp Fiction there is an entire sequence where Sam Jackson and John Travolta talk about cheeseburgers. Here, we don’t stay long enough with the morally bent characters so that their values seem like normal values. It’s difficult to root for any of them.
Having said that, you know a film is good when the biggest gripe about it is that it should’ve been longer. Fly By Night is absorbing and entertaining. More importantly, it’s ballsy and weird in the best possible ways helmed by someone who’s very clearly passionate about his craft. This is a film that calls for multiple viewings. You won’t want to leave the murky and outlandish world that Zahir has created with its insane characters whose lives spiral out of control. Fly By Night is a good film, period. But as far as Malaysian cinema goes, this is the new benchmark.