Backed by a Solid Cast, ‘Fly By Night’ Explores the Morality of Good and Evil
Four taxi drivers run a low-profile extortion team by targeting passengers that they drive from the airport. They keep the scheme small, only blackmailing selected wealthy passengers. Among the drivers are two brothers, Tai Lo (Sunny Pang) and Sai Lo (Fabian Loo) who commit these crimes in order to pay off their debts. Things go wrong when the impulsive younger brother decides to work with one of their victims to blackmail her lover, while policeman Inspector Kamal (Bront Palarae) and the criminal gang, hot on their heels are in pursuit of them.
Director: Zahir Omar
Cast: Sunny Pang, Eric Chen, Jack Tan, Fabian Loo, Ruby Faye, Joyce Harn, Bront Palarae, Frederick Lee
Language: Cantonese, Malay, Mandarin
Runtime: 100 minutes
In 2018, the Malaysian neo-noir crime thriller Fly by Night 非常盜 became one of the six feature film projects to receive the Post Production Fund from the 23rd Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Cinema Fund (ACF), and it is no surprise why. Malaysian director Zahir Omar’s debut feature film is an intense heist film that grips you from start to end.
Fly by Night follows a group of petty criminals disguised as taxi drivers who blackmail and extort rich passengers, and soon the police are hot on their trail. But when the boss’ younger brother decides to work with a victim, he gets embroiled with a criminal gang and the whole team becomes the target of the gang and the police at the same time. When shit finally hits the fan, Fly by Night is nothing short of exhilarating, with gun fights and car chases that are reminiscent of the heroic bloodshed genre in Hong Kong cinema.
The heroic bloodshed genre features stylistic gunplay sequences with themes of honour, family, redemption and lots of violence and blood. The films usually show the brotherhood between criminals and the corruption in the police, highlighting the gray area between traditional values of good and evil. Fly by Night incorporates some of these themes, such as the brotherhood between the four small-time criminals and a corrupted police Inspector.
But by packaging them as a neo-noir crime thriller, it adds a twist and gives a fresh perspective to a familiar genre. Also, Fly by Night’s diverse ethnicity and the constant switch of languages, from Cantonese to Bahasa Melayu, then to Mandarin and English, give the film a more localised touch and help it stand out from other crime thrillers that came before it.
Besides the hybrid of genres, the film is full of interesting characters with solid acting from its cast. While other films might rush into the main conflict of the film, director Zahir Omar is not afraid to spend more time at the start to properly set up each character and lay the foundations of the story, making sure that we are invested in the characters enough to root for them.
The casting of the film is also fantastic, and the entire cast feels perfect for their roles, though some stand out more than others. Sunny Pang, Frederick Lee, Bront Palarae and Joyce Harn are the ones that made the strongest impression on me, each bringing something unique to their role.
Sunny Pang’s character is the moral center of the family who struggles with his code of honour and keeping his ambitious younger brother out of trouble, and Pang nails this sympathetic character with ease. Performances by Bront Palarae and Frederick Lee, who play a corrupt police Inspector and a gang leader respectively, are also outstanding and captivating, both able to bring an intensity to their roles without feeling forced. But perhaps the most surprising character would be the jilted lover turned femme fatale Reanne, played stunningly by Malaysian model Joyce Harn in her big screen debut.
With such a big cast and so many things happening in the film, the script suffers from trying to squeeze everything into its 100 minute runtime and the end result feels too rushed. The painstaking attention paid to the setup at the beginning is also reduced to relying on genre conventions and a deus ex machina to solve the problems. Certain characters seem flat, not because of the performance, but because the characters themselves are poorly developed.
Ruby Faye’s character Michelle seems to appear only to serve the plot; her role as a mother and her choice to resort to crime to provide for her child is such a compelling aspect of her as a person, but the film just brushes it aside. Eric Chen’s ex-convict character is also painted as a mysterious and dangerous figure in the start, and he does get a few scenes that make him seem like a force to be reckoned with, including a pretty hard to watch torture scene. However, it turns out quite disappointing towards the end when his character is just cast to the side and not given a stronger ending.
Perhaps a longer runtime might have been a better choice for the film, giving it more room to explore more character moments and come up with a stronger third act.
All things considered, Fly by Night is still a solid piece of genre filmmaking, albeit with a couple of flaws in the script, but it is definitely a promising start for Zahir Omar’s feature film career.
Fly by Night is available to stream on Netflix, and you can catch it here.
You can also check out the trailer below.