Zahir Omar’s directorial debut feature “Fly by Night” takes us to a familiar territory of a genre cinema, but in a less threadbare setting of Kuala Lumpur’s underworld. Visually engaging, with a good job of the ensemble cast, it puts the viewer in a proper mood straightaway: catchy blues tunes flow, and the camera gives us a dynamic ride through the nighttime streets of the city, illuminated by the neon lights of the opening credits.

Fly by Night” is screening at New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase 2019

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Tailo (Sunny Pang, “Headshot”) is the head of a low-key extortion gang. He drives a taxi and, along with his fellow cabbies: younger brother Sailo (Fabian Loo) and his best pal Gwailo (Jack Tan, “A Land Imagined”), he fishes for potential targets. Kuala Lumpur airport is their hunting ground. Michelle (Ruby Yap), Sailo’s wife, who works at a taxi booking counter, filters potential well-off victims, and Gwailo takes them to the right (or, depending on the perspective, unlucky) vehicle. Afterwards the group plots their heist, observing the target and trying to find leverage. They “just drive and use phones,” as one of the characters puts it, though this “phone usage” includes seriously sounding threats against the targets’ close ones. The old order is going to change, as Ah Soon (Eric Chen), a convict recently released from jail, but most importantly Tailo and Sailo’s late father’s godson, joins the trio on Tailo’s initiative.

For Tailo, family matters the most. He is the eldest son. Thus since his father, a policeman, had passed away, it has become his duty to take care of his aging mother and younger brother. In a sense, he seems trapped by responsibilities, but he shoulders this burden without complaint. For him, the whole airport scheme is just a way to make ends meet. So Tailo provides his folks a decent life through indecent deeds. Cautious, calm, composed, and with a dignified face, he wants to keep the business simple. No guns. No grave offences. And a leveled profit, which won’t attract too much unwanted attention, thus won’t bring trouble.

The two youngsters, Sailo and Gwalio, are the opposite. They are impulsive hotheads who crave for more with less. Starting a family hasn’t made Sailo settle or calm down. His scuffles with Michelle are not uncommon, and he doesn’t seem to care whether their small child is watching or not. He spends most of his time away from his wife and son, hanging out with Gwailo, drinking, and losing money in shady gambling dens. Feeling underestimated and angered by the way his brother treats him, he is trying to sneak in a modus operandi of his own. But as he acts more like a spoiled brat than someone trying to fight for his own identity and independence, he makes it more likely for something to go wrong. And it does. They get into a huge trouble, courtesy of the local kingpin Jared (Frederick Lee). Also ruthless police officer Kamal, known for his violent interrogation techniques (Bront Palarae, “Pengabdi Setan”), is breathing down their necks. On top of that, one prey is going to turn into a huntress.

Unfortunately, the script is not free of loopholes, and some plot threads could have been developed more. Also the villain, crafted from all the possible clichés, with a sordid and frenzied cackle, and a passion for torture, at times looks more grotesquely hilarious than terrifying.

However, despite its flaws, it is a solid piece of a neo-noir thriller that doesn’t shy away from violence which would win the movie a spot during night madness festival screenings. The story unfolds in an engaging way and slowly sets the stage for a dramatic climax. Nothing in this movie is black and white, instead consisting mainly of shades of grey. Tailo’s gang is not a bunch of witty, well-looking masters of sophisticated crime. They are simply victims of their life circumstances. Sailo and Gwailo haven’t turned fully evil, and they still lack the unscrupulous cruelty that characterizes Jared and Ah Soon. Kamal, on the other hand, is in no way a paragon of virtue selflessly fighting for justice. Mostly, he fights his own demons, and his investigations allow him to feed his huge ego. He craves for power, and that makes him so similar to those he is chasing.

Tensions within Tailo’s family are well played and the social commitments’ trap sets a powerful tone. Additionally, a damsel in distress, quickly turning the tables as the obligatory femme fatale (Joyce Harn), adds a nice twist to the tale.

Kuala Lumpur, shot by Low Soon Keong, looks impressive. The dominating night shots are bustling with cigarette smoke and vibrant colours, and danger seems to constantly lurk in the shades. Composed, calm editing allows to focus on the characters and their relations. Furthermore, the movie reflects the city’s ethnic and linguistic diversity, as well as interestingly pointed social divisions – the police gets a green light from HQ to deal with taxi gang only after a Dato (it’s Malaysian high profile honorific title) falls victim to their schemes.

In the end, “Fly by Night” turns out to be a story of outcomes of greed and the destructive power of a hurt ego. Maybe it is not action-packed, keeping-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of heist movie, but it smartly mixes genre schemes with a subtle arthouse touch and adds interesting contexts of social commitments to the repetitive elements of a gangster tale.

PS Do not miss Joko Anwar’s cameo!

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