Sometimes, a long wait can be well worth it. After directing a couple of short films that brought him into the limelight of international festivals – 2007’s K-Hole and 2008’s Teddy & I – Zahir Omar had to wait another ten years before he managed to make his feature debut. His first film, Fly by Night, though, justifies the long journey towards its creation, most of which he spent working in advertising.
Fly by Night is definitely one of the most convincing films from Malaysia in recent years, all the more so for it being a production that subverts local canons. In fact, for his debut, Zahir Omar has chosen to shoot a film that mainly focuses on characters of Chinese ethnicity and is therefore inevitably shot mainly in Chinese languages. In a multi-ethnic country like Malaysia, where the majority of the population and film audience is Malay, inter-ethnic transition usually means that ethnic Chinese directors end up directing films in Malay starring Malaysian actors. Considering the deep segregation of the local market, this in itself is already curious and courageous.
Written by Omar together with Dain Said (the director of Bunohan, shown at the Far East Film Festival 2012), Ivan Yeo and Frederick Bailey, Fly by Night is a thriller whose protagonists are criminals and where – against the background of a city from which everyone seems to want to escape – each of the protagonists at one point or another ends up being forced to make decisions or do things with extreme and unexpected consequences. The plot describes the trafficking of the family of petty criminals led by Tailo, the eldest of three brothers. Together with Gwailo and Sailo, Tailo manages a web of scams and blackmail based around illegal taxis. The police are gunning for them, but what gets them into trouble is the ambition of younger brother Sailo, who wants more independence and aims to be a big shot. Except that when he tries to pull a job without his brother’s supervision, he predictably finds himself caught up in a web of unexpected consequences that gradually puts all those around him in a tight spot. Because, as is often the case in the best crime movies, Fly by Night’s smoothly functioning narrative mechanism is driven by the close family relationships between the protagonists, and its beating heart is Tailo’s attempt to hold his family together despite the risk of destroying everything.
Certainly, Fly by Night’s plot might sound somewhat traditional if we compare it to the genre films coming out of Hong Kong, Japan or South Korea, but in the context of Malaysia, the care in the writing and the complexity of the characters is quite innovative. And Zahir Omar’s agile and spare staging provides a level of figurative engagement which is even more unusual for a local production. Not to mention the excellent direction of the actors, which increases the dramatic and emotional power of the film, particularly the excellent Sunny Pang, who dominates with a subtle, moody performance that communicates Tailo’s inner ordeal through minimal expressiveness.
The film hasn’t yet reached Kuala Lumpur cinemas as we go to press, as its national release is scheduled for April 11th, but it is truly to be hoped that, after its world premiere at the Busan Festival last year, Fly by Night will be well received by the Malaysia public. Especially so we don’t have to wait another ten years before we next hear from the talented Zahir Omar.